Family Health: Screenings can get you started lowering heart disease risks

Heart disease is a major health issue in the United States, and it’s hard to escape media messages about this condition. For many people, that’s a recipe for worry. Is your blood pressure too high? Do you have unhealthy cholesterol levels? Are you headed for a heart attack?

Worry is not a good health strategy – in fact, it can make your health worse. A better plan is to find out what your risk factors really are, then do something to lower them. You can start by answering a few questions:

  • Do you have a close relative with heart disease? Your family history can raise your risks.
  • Do you smoke? Smokers are two to four times as likely to develop heart disease as non-smokers.
  • Are you overweight? Extra body fat increases your risks, especially if it’s at your waist.
  • Are you older than age 65? The likelihood of developing heart disease goes up with age.

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you have an elevated risk for heart disease. But even if all your answers were “no,” the American Heart Association would like you take it a step further. It recommends that people begin regular screening for heart disease risks at age 20. These screenings can uncover conditions such as diabetes, unhealthy cholesterol levels and other problems that increase your heart disease risks.
Have your health care provider check your:

  •  Blood pressure. High blood pressure is an important factor in heart disease, but it usually doesn’t cause symptoms. Have yours checked at least every two years.
  • Cholesterol and triglycerides. This blood test is called a fasting lipoprotein profile, and it measures your LDL, HDL and total cholesterol, along with a type of fat called triglycerides. Have this test every four to six years
  • Body mass index. Your BMI is a more precise indicator of heart disease risk than body weight. It is calculated using both your weight and height. It’s especially useful when considered along with your waist circumference.
  • Blood glucose. This test can show if you have diabetes or are likely to develop it. People with diabetes have a much higher risk for heart disease. Have this test every three years, starting at age 45

If you know your heart disease risks is elevated – from smoking, a family history or other factors – it’s even more important to have these tests. A good way to do that is to schedule a heart and vascular screening that combines them into one visit. Comprehensive heart and vascular screening also adds tests such as an electrocardiogram and ankle-brachial pressure index. ABI checks for peripheral vascular disease, which causes symptoms such as leg pain when you walk. These comprehensive screenings let you know your heart disease risks, and also help you understand them. Then you can get started lowering your risks with steps like losing weight, adopting a heart-healthy diet, quitting smoking and being more physically active.

Shawn Lake writes for Community Medical Center.