Features April 2017 Issue

Don’t Wait for Symptoms of a Heart Attack to Know Your Risk

The better you know your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, family history and other risk factors, the better you can predict your risk of heart disease.

For too many people, a heart attack is their first clue that they have heart disease. Or for people who perhaps knew they had risk factors for heart disease but didn’t realize how serious their condition was, symptoms of a heart attack serve as late wake-up call that prevention should have been a higher priority.

Chances are, if you’re reading this article, you’ve already been diagnosed with some kind of heart disease. If so, hopefully you’re working with your doctor on controlling your manageable risk factors and taking other preventive steps to lower your odds of a heart attack or stroke.

But if you don’t have heart disease, but you’re concerned that you’re heading in that direction, you may want to get an idea of your long-term risk. How likely is it that you’ll develop heart disease in the next 10 years?

Heart Attack Word Web

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Fortunately, there are heart disease risk assessments that can actually calculate your 10-year risk. This information is often used by doctors in deciding on preventive treatments, such as statin or aspirin therapy.

“It’s helpful to know your 10-year risk, because you can do something about it to lower your risk. Heart disease is preventable,” says Leslie Cho, MD, section head of Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation at Cleveland Clinic.

Calculating Your Risk

To get an idea how likely it is that symptoms of a heart attack could show up in the next 10 years, you can assemble some of your most important heart-healthy numbers and use an online calculator.

The American College of Cardiology (ACC) provides an online heart disease risk calculator (Cardiosmart) that is simple to use.

The information you’ll need includes:

- Total cholesterol
- HDL cholesterol
- LDL cholesterol
- Triglycerides
- Systolic blood pressure
- Diastolic blood pressure
- Birth date

You’ll also need to state your gender and whether you take medications for high blood pressure, have diabetes, or are a smoker. After all the information is submitted, this online tool will provide you a percentage risk for developing heart disease in the next decade.

Proceed with Caution

Of course, the ACC calculator and other risk assessments are impersonal and don’t include important risk factors, such as obesity, family history of heart disease, and other conditions that can contribute to heart disease risk. These include things like stress, sleep apnea, sedentary lifestyle, and an unhealthy diet.

“There has been much controversy, regarding risk calculators,” Dr. Cho says. “It may overestimate, but never underestimates your risk unless you’re not telling the truth.”

She adds that no online tool is a replacement for a doctor’s care. A physician who assesses your complete health profile can give you direction about lifestyles choices to make and prescribe medications or other treatments to help you reduce your chances of having heart disease.

Get Moving

Fortunately, you can start today to lower your heart risks today. Skipping dessert, taking a brisk walk, and checking your blood pressure are easy steps you can take. Seeing a percentage risk, even if it’s not completely accurate, should give you some incentive to change your life.

“I think for some patients it is the wakeup call that they need,” Dr. Cho says. “Some patients really like target numbers.” She points to the popularity of pedometers and other gadgets, such as Fitbit that help consumers stay focused on fitness goals.

If you’re one of those people who like numbers and like to see numbers change, living a heart-healthy life and following your doctor’s recommendations can actually help you lower your risk. The assessment you make today may be higher than what it is a year from now. It's certainly a goal worth pursuing.

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