Taking care of your heart requires weighing risks and benefits

Published: May, 2005

BOSTON, MA – Even if you think of yourself as the cautious type, you take risks more often than you realize. Maybe you don't take big risks like skydiving or snake handling, but you do take smaller risks without thinking about them, like driving a car or taking medication.

We are living in the "age of risk management," says Harvard risk expert Kimberly M. Thompson. Coping with heart disease is all about balancing benefits and risks:

  • Do I keep taking Celebrex because it's the only thing that eases my pain, even though it might increase my chances of having a heart attack?
  • Should I get a mechanical heart valve, which lasts longer but means I have to take warfarin every day, or get a bioprosthetic valve, which might have to be replaced in 10 years or so but means I don't need to use warfarin?
  • What are the chances I'll have memory problems after bypass surgery?

The trick is to choose the strategies with the greatest benefit and the least risk.

While we tend view numbers as indisputable, researchers and the media can "spin" risk estimates, just like they do political pronouncements, notes the Harvard Heart Letter. We also "spin" risk numbers ourselves, based on our experience and our fears. The Harvard Heart Letter offers tips on evaluating risk.

One important tactic in getting the real scoop on risks is building a good relationship with a smart, caring doctor or nurse, so you don't have to do this alone. He or she can give you the information you need to make a good decision and take the time to talk you through it.

Also in this issue:

  • Should healthy women take aspirin to ward off heart attack and stroke?
  • Liver problems may hold up approval of a new "blood thinner"
  • Surgery for mitral valve prolapse
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