February is a heart-friendly month. In addition to Valentine’s Day, the entire month is dedicated to heart health in the United States through American Heart Month. Each February, the American Heart Association (AHA) collaborates with organizations and communities across the country to raise awareness of heart disease and its prevention.
By learning about coronary heart disease (CHD), modeling heart health, and sharing information with patients, healthcare professionals can be important partners during American Heart Month.
The Impact of Heart Disease
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 720,000 Americans experience a heart attack each year. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in both women and men; one in every four American deaths results from heart disease. CHD, the most common type, takes the lives of about 380,000 people each year and costs nearly $110 billion in medical expenses. Heart disease can also contribute to other potentially costly issues such as fall injuries and medication errors.
Because healthcare professionals see the faces behind the numbers, they understand the human toll of heart disease. Yet many cases are preventable — education is critical for both patients and practitioners. Healthcare professionals share a responsibility to educate themselves in order to better help their patients learn preventive measures.
Defining, Diagnosing, and Treating Heart Disease
It’s not necessary to be an expert in cardiology to share helpful information with your patients. Knowing basic definitions and distinctions makes any healthcare professional an asset during American Heart Month — or any time of year.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), principal risk factors for heart disease include:
- Family history of heart disease
- Poor diet
- Sedentary lifestyle
- High levels of cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Advanced age
Defining Heart Disease
The terms “heart disease” and “cardiovascular disease” are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Cardiovascular diseases involve the heart and/or blood vessels and can occur anywhere in the circulatory system. Coronary heart disease, also called coronary artery disease or just heart disease, is one type of cardiovascular disease. CHD occurs when plaque builds up in the coronary arteries, decreasing blood flow to the heart.
Heart attacks and cardiac arrest are also different. Cardiac arrest is when the heart stops beating for any reason, and heart attacks typically do not result in cardiac arrest. During a heart attack, a vessel is blocked from supplying blood to a specific area of the heart muscle. This happens primarily due to plaque buildup, but it can also occur when a vessel spasms tightly enough to block blood flow. A blood clot broken off from somewhere else in the body may also cause a heart attack if it lodges in the heart.
The amount of heart tissue destroyed because of a blockage determines the severity of the heart attack. A lack of adequate blood oxygenation can also cause a type of heart attack called demand ischemia.
Heart disease is invisible in many individuals; by the time someone becomes symptomatic, the cardiovascular system may already have extensive damage. As such, preventive measures like screenings and early lifestyle changes are important.
The signs and symptoms of heart disease vary depending on the specific cause(s) and can mimic less serious illnesses. For example, a fluttery feeling in the chest accompanied by lightheadedness and shortness of breath might indicate an arrhythmia or anxiety, and acid indigestion may be confused for a heart attack. Nevertheless, certain symptoms may warrant urgent medical attention.
The following symptoms require immediate medical attention:
- Chest pain (angina), especially if in the center or left side
- Bluish to gray skin discoloration (cyanosis)
- Swelling in the extremities
- Pain, weak, or numb legs or arms
- Rapid pulse
- Shortness of breath and tiring easily
Symptoms of heart disease accompanied by a fever, dry cough, or rash could indicate a heart infection.
The signs of an acute heart attack are not always readily apparent. Symptoms range from breathtaking pain to mild or even no symptoms. This is especially true for women, whose only immediate symptom might be a vague pain or discomfort in the back. If a patient complains of pain in his chest, especially if it radiates to the arms, or if he feels faint, nauseated, or out of breath, emergency services should be called.
Heart disease is diagnosed in a variety of ways, beginning with establishing a patient’s medical history and then determining risk factors. If a physician suspects heart disease, he may order laboratory diagnostics and refer the patient to a cardiologist. Diagnostic tools available for detecting CHD include:
- Chest X-ray
- Stress test
- Electrocardiogram (EKG)
- Coronary angiography
- Cardiac catheterization
Any treatment for CHD incorporates living a lifestyle with heart health in mind. Both general practitioners and cardiology specialists can provide information and make referrals to dietitians, physical therapists, and other professionals to help their patients.
NHLBI lists five objectives for treatment: to relieve symptoms, reduce risk factors, prevent complications, decrease the chance of developing blood clots, and clear or go around clogged arteries. Treatments may involve:
- Lifestyle changes, including improved diet and increased activity
- Medications to relieve symptoms, thin blood, and reduce blood pressure
- Procedures that clear vessels (angioplasty) or bypass them by grafting tissue
- Replacement valve or heart transplant surgery
- Cardiac rehabilitation, which involves counseling, exercise, education, and training
Prevention Is Key
The key message behind American Heart Month is prevention, whether beginning at an early age or as a senior adult. One of the best ways to teach positive behaviors during American Heart Month and beyond is to demonstrate good heart health practices. By striving to model a healthy lifestyle, healthcare professionals can reduce their health risks while at the same time validating its benefits to their patients.
Model Heart Health
A substantial proportion of healthcare workers are overweight. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reports that 5.7 million health and social assistant workers are obese. Compared with 20 other industries, healthcare ranked fifth in obesity rates. Certain occupations in particular, including nursing assistants and home health aides, have higher rates of obesity. Researchers say that occupational stressors such as long work weeks and tough work environments significantly contribute to obesity among these professions.
Teaching is an excellent way to learn, and modeling is a great teaching tool. While diagnosis or treatment discussions should be reserved for the patient’s physicians, any healthcare practitioner can take the following preventive measures to help themselves and their patients.
Smoking can increase the risk of heart disease up to four times, according to the AHA. Those who stop smoking take an important step toward preventing heart disease. Healthcare professionals who are able to discuss heart health issues with their patients need to be ready to offer assistance and information if requested. For example, if a patient expresses an interest in quitting smoking, you can provide him with smoking cessation material from the American Lung Association.
Choose a Heart-Healthy Diet
Shifting to a healthier diet can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease. There are many resources available to help Americans learn about what makes up a healthy diet. Patients can access tools such as recipes and menu planners to make gradual changes to their eating habits.
Become More Active
The CDC recommends that adults participate in 2.5 hours of moderate and 1.25 hours of vigorous activity weekly, along with muscle strengthening activities on at least two days. For older adults, the CDC recommends increasing that activity to five hours at a moderate level and 2.5 hours at a vigorous level. Simply walking is a very healthy activity.
Get Healthy Sleep
Adults of all ages should strive for eight hours of restorative sleep each night. Unfortunately, one in five adults experiences sleep apnea, a repeated cessation of breathing throughout the sleep cycle. For people with apnea, sleep is often not restorative. They are frequently awakened while their organs are deprived of adequate oxygen, which can put them at a greater risk of heart disease.
Cope with Stress
Stress is a normal part of life. However, the way an individual reacts to and addresses stress could become problematic. Some may turn to unhealthy habits, such as overeating, smoking, and consuming alcohol or drugs. Healthier responses might include relaxation, hobbies, music, and exercise. If stress interferes with someone’s health, her ability to work, or her ability to maintain relationships, she should consider seeking professional counseling.
Participate in Screenings
Health fairs often provide free or low-cost screening services. Here, patients have the opportunity to be screened, while healthcare professionals can volunteer their services.
Beyond modeling heart health and participating in screenings, there are many other ways healthcare professionals can participate in American Heart Month. The AHA offers a number of suggestions on how to actively raise awareness about heart health and prevention. Among these, healthcare professionals can:
- Join an AHA walking club
- Participate in physical programs, such as Hoops for Heart and Jump Rope for Heart
- Become a You’re the Cure advocate
- Provide information through the Get with the Guidelines program
- Join any of the Go Red for Women activities
In addition, healthcare workers can disseminate information, donate funds, or simply hang up posters.
Preventing and combating heart disease effectively requires a united front. Whether by volunteering at a health fair, modeling heart health, or leaving appropriate pamphlets, healthcare workers can become part of the solution during American Heart Month.
Just as educating seniors on preventing heat disease can help improve their quality of life, informing them about the potential benefits of medical alert devices can help seniors maintain their independence. Learn more about how to refer your senior patients for a medical alert system.