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Ask the Expert: Top five things to know about healthy hearts

February is American Heart Month, established to raise awareness of cardiovascular disease and educate Americans on how to live heart-healthy lives.

Dr. Arie Szatkowski, medical director of cardiac services at Baptist Memorial Hospital-DeSoto and quality director of Stern Cardiovascular Foundation, provides insight on heart health for this month’s Ask the Expert column.

1. What are the statistics of those with unhealthy hearts?
Heart disease includes coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, valvular heart disease and other heart conditions and is the leading cause of death in the United States. It affects people of all ages and backgrounds and is responsible for 600,000 or one in four, deaths annually.

In this region of the country where Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas border one another, the death rate due to heart disease is one of the highest in the country, with Mississippi being perhaps the worst in the nation.

However, with the advances in medicine and improvements in diagnosis, there has been a 33 percent decline in the death rate due to heart disease from 1999 to 2009.

2. What factors contribute to heart health?
The factors that contribute most to heart health and ones that we can control include: not smoking, and maintaining healthy blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

Other very important factors include maintaining a healthy weight and body mass index, and staying active with at least 30-45 minutes of physical activity at least five days a week. If you maintain a healthy weight and avoid lots of carbohydrates, then you will be less likely to develop diabetes, another risk factor for heart disease.

3. What is the importance of diet for heart health?
Diet is extremely important for one’s overall health, as well as for reducing the likelihood of developing risk factors that contribute to the development of heart disease. There are many studies showing that a diet high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, olive oil, herbs and spices, fish and poultry are better for one’s heart health.

Many folks in the South believe that eating tilapia and catfish is healthy when in fact these fish are high in omega-6 fatty acids, a type of fat particle that builds plaque in the arteries. Better options for fish are salmon, mackerel or sardines.

Reducing portion size, limiting sugar drinks such as sweet tea, juices and soda and reducing carbohydrate intake such as bread and pasta is also recommended.

4. Who is more at risk for heart disease and similar complications?
The people with the greatest risk of complications of heart disease are the ones who know they have heart disease and don’t do enough to control the problem by not taking medications appropriately, not following their doctor’s instructions or for reasons that one can control.

The risk of heart disease and complications of heart disease is a spectrum. Basically the more risk factors you have or the greater the damage you have sustained to your heart, by blockage in your artery, dysfunctional valves, abnormal electrical system or weakened heart muscle, the greater is your risk of sudden death or other problems such as congestive heart failure.

The bottom line is that we are all at risk, no one has zero risk, but your risk goes down dramatically the better you care for yourself throughout your lifetime.

5. What signs or symptoms are there for unhealthy hearts?
The signs of heart disease that people should be aware of are chest pain, which includes pressure, tightness, squeezing or burning; trouble breathing, especially with activity or sudden in onset (a common manifestation of heart disease); heart racing, skipping, fluttering; lightheadedness; dizzy spells; and fainting. Mini-stroke symptoms such as forgetting where you are, not being able to speak or find words, or anything controlled by your mind that suddenly can’t be controlled can be signs of an early stroke.

Those who have any of these symptoms should seek the opinion of a health care professional who can take a detailed history and perform a detailed exam.