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Heart Frequently Asked Questions

Provided by the physicians of Cardiac and Vascular Surgery

1. Do all hearts age the same?

2. Why does a woman's risk of heart disease increase after menopause?

3. What is sudden cardiac death?

4. I was shocked when my doctor told me I had high blood pressure. I exercise and eat well - I feel just fine. Is it still a problem?

5. I've heard a lot about high cholesterol. But why should I be worried about my triglycerides?

6. How can I determine my ideal weight?

7. What is triple bypass surgery?

8. A good friend had a heart attack and ever since has seemed distant and depressed. Is this normal?

9. Is there anything I should keep in mind when I visit my doctor?

10. How do I accurately measure my heart rate?

11. You always hear about hard exercise triggering a heart attack. At my age of 72, doesn't that defeat the purpose of exercising?

12. I've heard lots of reports on the news about the health benefits of alcohol. Is this as good as it sounds?

13. I'm in my 60s and I've smoked basically my whole life.  Will it really help that much if I quit now?

14. Should I be taking an aspirin a day for my heart? How about garlic?

15. Are people with Type A personalities at a higher risk of heart disease?

1. Every person is unique, and the same is true of hearts. The degree to which a heart ages can vary dramatically depending on heredity, gender and how well it has been cared for.

2. Levels of estrogen, a hormone in women that allows them to have children and keeps bones strong, decline after menopause. Scientists speculate that estrogen relaxes the arteries, allowing increased blood flow. Postmenopausal women - especially those who have had their ovaries or uterus removed - are much more prone to heart disease. Estrogen replacement therapy may decrease that risk by as much as 50 percent.

3. Sudden cardiac death occurs when the heart stops beating abruptly. Unlike a heart attack, which usually is caused by a blocked artery, sudden heart death happens for reasons not entirely known. In fact, evidence of heart disease may or may not be present.

4. High blood pressure is nicknamed "the silent killer" for good reason. It wears down the heart with every passing day, causing many potential health problems. Often people don't get their blood pressure checked because they feel great. Diet and exercise do not guarantee low blood pressure. Get it check regularly, at least every 2-1/2 years.

5. High levels of triglycerides have been linked to the development of coronary artery disease in some people. You need to watch your triglycerides if they are between 200 and 400. Above 400 is considered high. Diabetes, excess weight, lack of exercise and excessive consumption of alcohol are common culprits behind high triglycerides.

6. The most common and accurate way to calculate a proper weight in regard to your height is to use the Body Mass Index (BMI). You calculate your BMI in three steps:
1) Multiply your weight in pounds by 700
2) Divide that number by your height in inches
3) Divide that number again by your height in inches.
The resulting number is your BMI.
Ideally it should fall between 21 and 25, with a rating of 30 or higher considered obese. However some studies suggest modifying the scale for older individuals. With that scale in mind, if you are 45 to 54 years old, an acceptable BMI is 22 to 27. If you are 55 to 65 years old, and acceptable BMI is 23 to 28. If you are 65 years or older, and acceptable BMI is 24 to 29. If your number is above your acceptable range, you are overweight.

7. This type of surgery occurs when there are three blocked arteries, instead of one or two. This coronary bypass surgery also requires three vein or artery grafts, one for each of the damaged arteries. Overall, bypass operations are becoming more and more common; each year more than 500,000 Americans have this type of surgery.

8. Fear, anger and depression are common feelings after a heart attack. Your friend might be afraid of dying or that her life will never be the same. She could even be angry that the heart attack happened to her. Encourage her to talk to her doctor about her feelings. Depression can be damaging to long-term health. Her physician likely will recommend the professional help of a therapist or counselor.

9. If you feel you have a problem, describe all of your symptoms, even ones that might seem minor. Tell the doctor all the medications you are taking, including over-the-counter drugs. Also, don't be shy about asking questions, especially if your are having trouble understanding what your doctor is saying. Listen closely to any instructions and, if necessary, have your doctor repeat them or write them down. This is particularly important for medication. After your visit, if you still have questions, call your doctor.

10. The easiest way to measure your heart rate is by taking your pulse. Before, during or immediately after exercising, place the tips of your first two fingers on the underside of your wrist just below your thumb (about where you would wear a watch). Here you should find your pulse. Count the number of times you feel your heart beat in 15 seconds. Then multiply that number by four. That is your heart rate.

11. The benefits of exercise far outweigh the risks. To lower your chance of injury or heart attack (which is unlikely) during exercise, always see your doctor before starting a program. And when you start, pace yourself.

12. Yes and no. In recent studies, the use of alcohol - wine (red and white), beer and liquor - has been shown to lower the rate of heart disease and increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels. But above two drinks per day for men and one drink a day for women, the effects of alcohol can be detrimental - liver damage, alcoholism, high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, accidents, and even suicide. The rule of thumb: if your don't drink, don't start. If you do drink, do so in moderation.

13. The chance of having a heart attack drops almost immediately after your last puff. And in only three years - no matter how long you've smoked - the risk of heart disease falls to nearly the same level as if you had never smoked at all. Surprisingly, research also has found that older people have a higher success rate at quitting smoking that younger smokers.

14. Low, daily doses of aspirin (not other pain relievers such as Tylenol or Advil) have proven to be helpful in preventing heart attacks by thinning the blood slightly. However, there can be potentially unsafe side effects, especially if combined with alcohol. Consult your doctor before taking aspirin on a regular basis. As for garlic, current research - in contrast to older studies - suggests it is simply a flavorful herb. So while a few cloves a day certainly won't hurt, they probably won't help much either.

15. Not exactly. People with Type A personalities tend to be competitive, stubborn and aggressive - and often in a hurry. But studies have shown that the behavior most apt to put people at a higher risk of heart disease is anger. This may be tied to the release of adrenaline or perhaps lowered levels of serotonin. Those individuals who anger easily need to take extra precautions in controlling their stress levels.