Finding a Healthy Rhythm

February 2, 2024
• During Heart Health Month, a Needham-based cardiologist shares her advice for taking care of the all-important organ.

Jan. 1 marks the start of a new year and often new habits. Desires to quit smoking, work out and lead a healthier lifestyle dominate New Year’s resolutions, but those can quickly fall by the wayside by the time February rolls around.

For those who may have abandoned their goals, this month may set them back on track. February marks Heart Health Month, during which medical professionals encourage people to implement better practices for their cardiovascular system.

Dr. Jessica Haffajee, a noninvasive cardiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital – Needham, said the awareness campaign allows both primary care doctors and patients to think more about the heart, especially before any issues appear.

Dr. Jessica Haffajee, a cardiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Needham. (Courtesy BID-N)

A good starting point is the heart ABCS, an acronym for preventative measures to ensure a healthy heart: Aspirin, blood pressure, cholesterol and smoking.

Taking aspirin could minimize the risk of heart attacks and strokes, but patients are advised to check with their doctor, as it’s not an appropriate option for everyone.

Hypertension — the medical term for high blood pressure — is “extremely common,” Haffajee said, and could result in heart complications if untreated. The issue, however, lies in actually detecting it.

“The problem with high blood pressure is you could be walking around with elevated blood pressures for months, years. It doesn’t typically cause any symptoms, so you’re not going to know unless you’re checking it or having your doctor check it,” Haffajee said. “But keeping it under good control certainly prevents a lot of stuff.”

Taking a two-pronged approach to controlling blood pressure, by considering both lifestyle and medication, can help, Haffajee said.

While cholesterol is a vital bodily substance, it can build up in the blood vessels and thereby pose a heightened risk for heart attacks or strokes, according to the Mayo Clinic.

High cholesterol is also relatively prevalent, Haffajee said, and to keep levels low, folks should balance diet, exercise and medications if necessary.

Smoking and vaping also jeopardize heart health, Haffajee said.

Haffajee adds two more letters to the ABCS acronym: Diet and exercise — the ABCDES.

Eating healthy should be a no-brainer, but doing so could be difficult with a stereotypical American diet, which contains a high amount of sodium, Haffajee said. Lean protein, fish and plant-based protein make for a better diet, she said, and people should limit their carbohydrate intake and only consume red meat once a week or less.

Based on recommendations from the American Heart Association, Haffajee said everyone should fit in about 150 minutes — two-and-a-half hours — of “moderate cardio” a week. That looks like a brisk walk, a leisurely bike ride or gardening, according to the AHA.

Finding the time to work out may prove difficult, but Haffajee said just five to 10 minutes over a lunch break makes a difference and can lead to improved outcomes in the long run.

“When people start exercising, they find it addictive,” she said. “They feel better, their mood is better, physically they feel better, so they want to do it.”

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and cardiovascular diseases — including coronary heart disease and pulmonary embolism, among other disorders — lead death tolls worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

One major warning sign is exertion: shortness of breath or chest discomfort after climbing a flight of stairs or exercising, Haffajee said. In serious cases, symptomatic patients should go to the emergency room, she said, but otherwise see a doctor soon to find the right specialist.

“Diagnosing things early prevents having an actual heart attack,” Haffajee said. “We can nip it in the bud.”

In older populations, atrial fibrillation is fairly common, Haffajee said, with age playing a prominent role. Symptoms can include shortness of breath, lightheadedness, palpitations or “exercise intolerance,” she said. Some also experience the rapid pulse associated with the arrhythmia, she added, but others don’t.

Heart failure can lead to leg swelling due to a fluid build up, she added.

Doctors perform ultrasounds, install wearable cardiac monitors and conduct stress tests, which involve hooking patients up to an electrocardiogram — EKG — and having them walk on the treadmill at increasing difficulty. By stressing the heart, Haffajee said they’re able to look for changes to the EKG and overall abnormalities with exercise.

Keeping an eye on one’s heart health is key, she said.

“We see a lot of people who’ve already had events, but we’re happy to see people for prevention because I think that’s honestly a lot of it,” Haffajee said. “If we can prevent a lot of this stuff from happening, it’s going to be better overall for everybody’s health.”

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