Our hearts beat 100,000 times daily, pumping 2,000 gallons of blood filled with oxygen through our bodies. In the average lifetime, a heart muscle beats more than 2.5 billion times.
When it comes to heart care, specialized doctors evaluate and treat people who have heart disease, which is often also called cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease refers to heart and blood vessel conditions, including coronary artery disease and heart valve disease, which can cause heart attack and stroke.
Coronary artery disease develops when your coronary arteries - the major blood vessels that supply your heart with blood, oxygen and nutrients - become damaged or diseased. Because coronary artery disease often develops over decades, it can go virtually unnoticed until you have a heart attack.
Heart valve disease disrupts the blood flow through your heart to your body. The heart has four valves which open and close once during each heartbeat to keep blood flowing in the correct direction.
Annually, heart disease is the number-one killer in our country for both men and women. The US Centers for Disease Control report that heart disease accounts for one in every three deaths - 2,200 every day.
“A lot of people are dying from heart disease so it’s very important to understand how living a healthy lifestyle can help you avoid heart disease,” Nazzal Obaid, MD who provides cardiology services for Methodist Hospitals, said. “Heart disease often can be treated if you're evaluated early. You may prevent or improve your heart disease if you exercise, eat a healthy diet, quit smoking, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and maintain a healthy weight.”
With research indicating 80 percent of heart disease is preventable, cardiologists like Dr. Obaid who diagnose and treat disorders of the circulatory system and the cardiovascular system – the heart, arteries and veins – are passionate about preventing heart attack and stroke.
“I always wanted to do something that would make a difference in people’s lives,” he explained. “I was very fortunate to have great mentors. I’ve been a cardiologist since 1978, and I would have to say the biggest breakthrough during my career is angioplasty and stenting (nonsurgical procedures used to open blocked heart arteries). There’s no better way to improve outcomes than to deal with the source of the problem immediately - the sooner to the hospital and to the cath lab the better the results. Even though you might not be sure, just get there and then find out.”
While procedures such as coronary angioplasty will open a blocked artery, they will not cure coronary artery disease. In some cases, your primary care doctor and cardiologist may refer you to a cardiothoracic surgeon to determine if surgery is needed to correct your heart problems. More than 500,000 people undergo heart surgery each year, with some requiring emergency surgery, while others plan it.
“Six months ago, I stood at the crossroad of life and death, my doctors telling me that I could suddenly die from a heart attack if I didn’t have open heart surgery,” ABC News correspondent and The View co-host Barbara Walters stated in an hour-long 2011 documentary. “I’m not alone, in the past few years, other well-known Americans have undergone this dramatic operation to save their lives.”
A Barbara Walters Special: A Matter of Life and Death featured a “who’s who” of celebrity heart surgery survivors: Bill Clinton, Robin Williams, Regis Philbin and David Letterman. Starting with Walters, who shared her personal journey to replace a faulty heart valve, they each detailed their specific medical situations.
“Awareness and education are very important so celebrity spokespeople are certainly effective,” Eias Jweied, MD, a part of the team offering access to a full array of cardiothoracic and vascular services at Franciscan Alliance’s Northern Indiana Region hospitals through a longtime partnership with renowned Oak Lawn, Ill.-based Cardiothoracic & Vascular Surgical Associates S.C., said. “Prevention is always front and center – diet and exercise, eliminating nicotine, controlling cholesterol levels and blood pressure. The symptoms of coronary artery disease are wide and varied. Your primary care doctor will know about these symptoms and do some preliminary testing. If there is underlying coronary disease, you will see a cardiologist and then a surgeon for further treatment and evaluation.”
“Coronary disease is part of the process of naturally aging, but it appears earlier in people who are not taking care of themselves,” Bradford Blakeman, M.D, who specialized in high-risk heart surgery as part of the Community Healthcare System cardiovascular surgical team which also operates the Heart Valve Institute of St. Mary Medical Center, added. “We as physicians are here to help, but the patients ultimately need to take responsibility for their heart health. We don’t cure the disease, and it’s only through lifestyle changes where we see real progress over the long run.”
According to Dr. Blakeman whose career path was determined in the first year of medical training when he was too shy to say no to the Chief of Surgery and finished his training in 1986, the fact that less people are smoking is a good thing, but there is increasing concern about rising risk factors for heart disease among young people where obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol are on the rise.
“This is the first time in history where we are moving backwards in terms of life expectancy,” he said. “We really need to get a handle on obesity.”
Dr. Jweied, who was fascinated by the physiology of the heart as a child, agrees.
“For years quitting smoking was the #1 risk factor,” he said. “Now, it’s also about what you are eating. Our diet should be much more plant based. High saturated fats contribute to high cholesterol, and we also need better glucose control for diabetes, less refined sugars and sugary drinks.”
While some heart attacks are sudden and intense, most heart attacks start slowly - with mild pain or discomfort. Almost all heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain. Symptoms can also include pain or discomfort in the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach, as well as shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort. Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
Like men, the most common heart attack symptom in women is chest pain or discomfort. But, women are somewhat more likely than men to experience shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
As the American Heart Association states, there is a long way to go in the fight against heart disease across all ages, races and gender groups.
Along with Drs. Blakeman, Jweied and Obaid, you’ll find many local heart health heroes committed to educating and building awareness in the fight against heart disease. Watch for details on regularly-scheduled heart health educational classes, workshops and screenings offered throughout Northwest Indiana and remember: minutes matter – fast action can save lives – don’t ever hesitate to call 9-1-1.