Heart disease is the leading cause of death for American men and women, contributing to one out of every four deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health officials use the month of February to educate the public on this fact and another crucial one: The risk of heart disease can be decreased by exercising regularly, eating nutrition-packed foods, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding smoking and more.
These are lifestyle choices Carroll Hospital Center cardiologist Dr. Evan Selsky said are crucial to a healthy heart. The Times talked to Selsky about heart disease prevention, warning signs and more.
Q: What is heart disease, and how prevalent is it in Americans?
The heart is a very complicated structure. I always tell people [it's] a lot more complicated than your car. You know your car has electrical wires, fuel lines, carburetors; I'm just saying your heart is much more complicated. Patients always say, 'Do I have heart disease?' Well you can say if there's anything wrong with your heart - anything - it's a version or form of heart disease. Certainly the most common type that people worry about is called coronary artery disease and blockage of the arteries. Heart attacks, damage to the heart, stents, balloons, bypass surgery - that's one of the most common types of heart disease.
Q: What are some of the most common heart problems that you see that are more preventable than others?
Some heart problems are preventable, and people can have a huge impact; some come and there's really nothing the person could have done differently or even once they get it, they can't necessarily change. The number one heart disease that everybody worries about is coronary artery blockage, and the reason is it's the most fatal. It's the number one cause of death in the country - cancer, suicide, car accidents, breast cancer, colon cancer. Heart attacks, it's number one. A lot of that is preventable, not all of it.
The scary ones, and everybody's heard of these, the scary ones-as I said it's more common in people in their 70s, 80s, 90s, - but everybody's known somebody who's 30 or 40 who keels over and dies from a heart attack. It's very scary and very real. So patients don't always have a warning, so that type of heart disease clearly people can have a big impact if they live a healthy life. ... It really is really true, you can have a huge impact if you start early and you make a strong, strong effort. But the problem is it's difficult, it takes motivation - you've got to want to do it - and it's not always the easiest way to do it. ... The biggest factors are things like obesity, cigarette smoking, exercise or what you could call a sedentary lifestyle (a lack of exercise), controlling blood pressure and controlling cholesterol. Oh my goodness, those things are huge, especially [in] Carroll County.
Q: What are some of the signs and symptoms that something might not be right?
It does depend what type of heart disease we're talking about, but certainly the big symptoms to look out for are a tightness, pressure or heaviness ... sometimes even a burning usually somewhere across the front of the chest, but there's a lot of variation on that. It could be toward the throat, it could be over at the left side, but most commonly it's across the front, particularly with exertion. A person says, "When I'm walking up a hill or an incline, or I'm walking fast and I'm carrying things, and that's when I get that pressure in the chest," that's a strong indicator that there's a blockage problem. Shortness of breath is probably the second most common symptom.
I think it depends on the person and the extent of their symptoms. So I think if it's gradual and mild - it's been there slowly increasing and it's been there for months - starting with your primary care or family care doctor might be a good idea. I think if it's an acute onset, we worry a lot more. "Boy, I was never short of breath, but this past week every time I'm walking [I feel short of breath]," so if there's a sudden change in the threshold, that's a worrisome sign. So the bigger the change, the more severe, sometimes people should think about going to the emergency room.
Q: For heart health month, is there one aspect of heart health you would like the public to know about?
I think the most important one is it's always better to prevent than it is to just deal with it when you have a problem. Because usually by the time somebody has a heart attack, or by the time somebody needs a stent or bypass, you're talking about years after, and at that point they may get patched up and get a stent put in one spot or they may get a valve put in one area, but the time to attack it is when you're in your 20s and 30s. That doesn't mean people can't work on it later, but that's the best time. So I think it's ten times better, ten times more effective and works ten times better to do something about it before you're already in trouble. ... People should be - and again easier said than done - eating a healthy diet; parking further away from their office building; people should be taking the steps, not the elevator; people should be wanting to go on a walk with their friend or their spouse or their sister or brother. That stuff is hugely important.