It’s been a topsy-turvy few days in the world of heart health and disease. Last week, the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology released new guidelines that upended previous recommendations for who should take a cholesterol-lowering statin. A few days later, two Harvard physicians challenged the accuracy of the calculator included in the guidelines, saying it would cause many people to unnecessarily take a statin. The story made headlines in The New York Times and prompted a closed-door review by the guidelines committee. The controversy over the calculator should serve to improve this tool. Adoption of the guidelines should help prevent more heart attacks, strokes, and premature deaths. It’s important to keep in mind that guidelines are just that—information to guide a decision, not to mandate it. The best approach is to talk about what’s best for you with a trusted physician.
Updated cholesterol guidelines released yesterday by the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology aim to prevent more heart attacks and strokes than ever before. How? By increasing the number of Americans who take a cholesterol-lowering statin. The previous guidelines, published in 2002, focused mainly on “the numbers”—starting cholesterol levels and post-treatment levels. The new guidelines focus instead on an individual’s risk of having a heart attack or stroke. The higher the risk, the greater the potential benefit from a statin. A statin is now recommended for anyone who has cardiovascular disease, anyone with a very high level of harmful LDL cholesterol, anyone with diabetes between the ages of 40 and 75 years, and anyone with a greater than 7.5% chance of having a heart attack or stroke or developing other form of cardiovascular disease in the next 10 years.
Radiation, on its own or coupled with other treatments, has helped many women survive breast cancer. Yet radiation therapy can cause the appearance of heart disease years later. New research published in JAMA Internal Medicine estimates that the increased lifetime risk for a heart attack or other major heart event in women who’ve had breast cancer radiation is between 0.5% and 3.5%. The risk is highest among women who get radiation to the left breast—understandable, since that’s where the heart is located. The heart effects of radiation begin emerging as soon as five years after treatment. However, future heart risk should not be the reason to abandon this important component of treatment. Cancer experts are doing more and more to minimize the amount of radiation the heart receives.
Getting the flu shot may do more than protect against the flu and its lingering aftermath. It also lowers a person’s odds of a having heart attack, stroke, heart failure, or other major cardiac event—including death—by about a third over the following year. What’s the connection between flu and cardiovascular problems? The body mounts an impressive immune response against the flu. That causes a lot of inflammation, which destabilizes cholesterol-filled plaque inside blood vessels. Plaque rupture can cause a heart attack or stroke. Experts recommend a flu shot for everyone six months of age and older. It is especially important for those who face the highest risk of complications: young children; adults over age 50; those of all ages with serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, asthma or other lung disease, liver or kidney disease, or diabetes; and those who care for young children or other individuals at high risk of flu complications.
What’s bad for the heart is often bad for the brain. High cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and unhealthy “hardening” of the arteries increase the risk of mental decline or dementia later in life. A study published online today in Neurology shows that older people with the stiffest arteries are more likely to show the kinds of damage to brain tissue often seen in people with dementia. The study adds support to the “two hit” theory of dementia. It suggests that the accumulation of Alzheimer’s-linked amyloid protein in the brain may not pose problems until damage to small blood vessels that nourish the brain nudges them over into dementia. There may be a silver lining to this line of research: Efforts to improve cardiovascular health can also protect the brain.
The ability of today’s electronic books to display videos, images explained by a spoken voice, animations, interactive tools, and quizzes gives doctors new ways of explaining things. Harvard Health Publications and Orca Health have created a series of ten interactive iBooks focused on heart disease. Currently, these are available only as iBooks. Need to know what happens in the heart when a heart attack is underway, how doctors open up cholesterol-clogged arteries, or how to cope with the irregular heart rhythm known as atrial fibrillation? The answers are in these iBooks. They let users view the heart in ways and detail they’ve never seen before to learn about common heart conditions and procedures.
It’s easy to think of heart disease and stroke as an almost inevitable part of aging in a developed country like the United States. After all, they are our leading causes of death and disability. But the truth is that these are largely preventable conditions. New estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that one-quarter of all deaths from heart disease and stroke are preventable. And that is almost certainly an underestimate. According to the report, published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, among American adults under age 75, approximately 200,000 of deaths caused each year by heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure (hypertension) are preventable. Surprisingly, more than half of those preventable deaths occurred among individuals under age 65. The good news is that the rate of preventable death declined 29% from 2001 to 2010, the last year for which there are complete statistics.
A heart attack can be a frightening wake-up call with long-lasting aftereffects. It’s no surprise that women often tread gently after having a heart attack—and many don’t tread back into the bedroom for sex. Up to 60% of women are less sexually active after a heart attack, often due to worries that sex could trigger a repeat heart attack. A new study suggests that although women believe sex is important for resuming a sense of normalcy and intimacy with their partners, many are fearful that it would be too much for their hearts to take. Reassurance from a doctor is sometimes all that’s needed to ease those fears. How does a woman know if she’s physically ready for sex after a heart attack? It’s safe to have sex if you can work up a light sweat without triggering symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath.
Summer’s heat is as predictable as winter’s chill. Heat-related illnesses—and even deaths—are also predictable. But they aren’t inevitable. In fact, most are preventable. Most healthy people tolerate the heat without missing a beat. It’s not so easy for people with damaged or weakened hearts, or for older people whose bodies don’t respond as readily to stress as they once did. There are three different levels of heart-related illness: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Some simple choices can help you weather the weather. Drinking water and other hydrating fluids is essential. Putting off exercise or other physical activity until things cool down also helps. Chilled air is the best way to beat the heat. Sticking with smaller meals that don’t overload the stomach can also help.
Do-it-yourselfers, take heart. Here’s something else to do at home that can have a substantial benefit on your health: measure your blood pressure. It’s easy, inexpensive, and helps control blood pressure better than visits to the doctor. The latest evidence for the benefits of home blood pressure monitoring comes from researchers in Minnesota. In a 12-month clinical trial, 72% of those doing home monitoring had their blood pressure under control compared to 57% who received usual care. The benefits persisted six months after the program had ended. Anyone can monitor blood pressure at home. You can buy a good home blood pressure monitor at a pharmacy or online merchant for anywhere from $50 to $100. Some insurance companies cover the cost.