Updated Dec. 21, 2023
Since 1964, the month of February has been set aside for American Heart Month. At Camino Clinic, every patient undergoes testing on their heart during their appointment to ensure any issues are detected early. This is important because heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, but thankfully there are lots of steps you can take to assure your heart is healthy. Camino Clinic’s Dr. Gary Quigg, who has been practicing internal medicine for over 40 years, discusses tips to ensure your heart is healthy, symptoms to look out for, and treatment options for those with heart disease in the interview below.
What are some tips to make sure that your heart is healthy that you tell your patients?
Well, first of all, history is the most important thing by far. We have to get people more tuned into their body. I went to a wonderful lecture once where the doctor said, ‘we can teach people to better listen to their body, or you can wait until it literally screams.’ So becoming aware of the symptoms of heart disease is important for all of us. And typically, people will complain of a tightness or pressure in their chest in describing their pain. Women are notorious for having symptoms that are difficult to describe or unusual. So one of the first things to tell people is to be very suspicious. Don’t assume anything. Of all the EKG evidence of heart attacks, 10% of people are not even aware they ever had one. They thought it was indigestion or esophageal spasm or a bug and they got through it. Then later on we recognize they actually had an event.
What are some misconceptions or myths about heart health?
Well the biggest misconception is the idea that heart disease only occurs in men. It’s actually equal in men and women when you get to age 65. It’s true that young women have an advantage over men. There is something about functioning ovaries that protects them from cholesterol damage to the walls of arteries. But that only lasts until menopause which typically starts around the age of 52. By the time men and women get to age 65, the rate of heart attacks are equal. And what that means is that women do as much damage on average in 13 years, as it takes a man four or five decades to accomplish. So just be aware that it’s an issue for everybody.
Doctors also say diet and exercise is really key to any healthy lifestyle. Is one more important than the other?
Well, it’s kind of like asking, would you rather be hit by a Ford truck or a Mack truck because the end result is about the same. Diet and exercise are both important. But when you come down to coronary artery disease, unfortunately, it’s genetics that probably are the most important aspect. Only about 20% of the cholesterol on our bloodstream comes from food we eat and a maximal improvement you’re going to see in your serum cholesterol with diet and exercise is 10 to 20%. It has so much to do with your family history and that’s why everybody knows someone whose whole family have heart attacks or die at a young age. There’s no doubt in my mind that treatment with cholesterol lowering drugs like statins has made a tremendous difference. I remember when I was young, we used to see people with congestive heart failure pretty much every day, maybe two or three times a day. And it was the result of people not having their blood pressure well controlled. Now I go a month or two without seeing a single patient with congestive heart failure. It’s amazing how much things have changed since I’ve been in medicine.
What are some concerning heart symptoms people should watch out for?
Well: tight, squeezing pressure in your chest, shortness of breath with exertion or just plain old fatigue. You try to walk the stairs and it leaves you breathless, or worn out and you have to stop before you can climb three flights of stairs or even walk five blocks on the flat. If you notice a change in your functional capacity, go get checked. Something else that’s new today is coronary calcium scoring. When cholesterol gets deposited in the walls of arteries, calcium quickly starts to fill in. They now can do a CAT scan of your heart that takes seven seconds and it looks for the calcium buildup. If your score is zero we can say with a lot of confidence, you don’t have any coronary artery disease. But if you score over 200 that tells us we need to put you on the treadmill and start looking at you closely. If you score over 600 sometimes it goes straight to a heart cath where they look for narrowings. But there’s a lot that can be done today to head off trouble. I tell all my patients that they don’t want to be in this situation of trying to lock the barn after the horse is out.
If you would like to set up an appointment at Camino Clinic, you can fill out a form here. There’s also adult and pediatric membership options at the Clinic. It’s $240 for an annual membership for adults and $60 for a pediatric membership. Additional visits are $75.
Older Adults and Heart Health (Updated Information):
Older adults are particularly vulnerable to heart disease. If you or someone you know is an older adult who lives alone, check out the National Council on Aging’s (NCOA) Resources and Support for Older Adults Living Alone: A Comprehensive Guide. This piece includes practical insights and tips from geriatric health experts and advocates, such as:
- NCOA’s BenefitsCheckUp tool which helps older adults identify their potential eligibility for benefits and programs
- The National Directory for Home Modification and Repair which assists those seeking to make their homes more safe and suitable for aging in place
- PACE programs, which use Medicare and Medicaid to help older adults receive nursing home-level care