What is heart disease: An interview with Dr. Schmidt

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Heather Schmidt, DO  Medical Director of Health and Wellness and Family Medicine physician

Can you provide a simple definition of heart disease? Is this an umbrella term for a range of conditions?

It is difficult to give a simple definition, but according to www.familydoctor.org, it is defined as “thickening of the inside walls of the coronary arteries. This thickening is called atherosclerosis (pronounced: “ath-uh-roe-skluh-roe-suhs”). A fatty substance called plaque builds up inside the thickened walls of the arteries, blocking or slowing the flow of blood. If your heart muscle doesn't get enough blood to work properly, you may have angina or a heart attack.”   Heart disease can be an umbrella term for a range of conditions- usually we group heart attacks, angina and even heart failure together when referring to heart disease.

What causes heart disease? Is it hereditary? Caused by lifestyle choices?

Many things can lead to the development of heart disease- including family history and lifestyle choices, such as poor diet and lack of physical activity or smoking.  Diabetes is a definite risk factor for heart disease, in fact, we assume heart disease is present if a  patient has a diagnosis of diabetes, whether they have had symptoms or not.

Can heart disease be prevented?

In many cases, heart disease can be prevented by a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and limited lean meats, avoiding tobacco use and staying physically active.  The recommendation is to get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week for heart health.  Stress management is also important since this can be another risk factor.

What are the symptoms of heart disease, and at what age should women start to look for these symptoms? 

Symptoms of heart disease include the standard chest pain related to activity, that may or may not radiate to the left arm or into the jaw.  Shortness of breath, fatigue with exertion, dizziness or lightheadedness and diaphoresis (sweating) can also occur.  Women may have atypical symptoms and don’t always “follow the book,” so if you are experiencing any similar symptoms, you should discuss this with your provider.  We are particularly concerned with these symptoms over the age of 50, but they can certainly occur earlier based on family history and lifestyle.

What tips do you have for women who want to live a heart healthy life? Diet suggestions? Exercise? 

I always tell my patients to make sure to eat at least 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, minimize processed and fast food, limit portion sizes, stay well hydrated and minimize meat consumption.  According to the USDA My Plate recommendations, protein should only be one-quarter of our plate- that would be more of a side dish and not the “star” of the plate.  As for exercise, I think it is optimal to try to break a sweat at least 30 minutes every day and keep recreational screen time to less than 2 hours.

Is there a certain age when women should be more consciously aware of keeping their hearts healthy? Or, the sooner the better?

The sooner the better- it is never too early to be healthy.  However, it is also never too late- if you have already had a heart attack, it is still very important to make sure you change your diet and exercise habits or your symptoms are likely to recur.  Medical procedures and medications can only do so much- lifestyle habits are still the best treatment for heart disease.

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