Mesa resident Kevin Young, 42, hasn’t been a paragon of health in his life, but he didn’t expect to undergo an open-heart surgery in his early 40s.
Young’s life is littered with health issues — he has had cataract issues and inklings of a diabetes diagnosis — but the heart issue didn’t come to light until the fall of 2013. He had gone through a bout of pneumonia in August, and was asked to complete a stress test by his doctors. He opted instead to wait until September when he was in better health; the delay did little to improve the results.
“I failed the stress test horribly,” he said.
An ensuing test revealed all the arteries around his heart were fused, which left him two options to consider: drugs to help open the arteries of a quadruple bypass. He opted for the latter and had open heart surgery a few days later. He also had that diabetes diagnosis confirmed, and is now taking insulin to cope with his Type 2 diabetes.
Although Young doesn’t drink or smoke, he did face his fair share of issues that could cause or even exacerbate heart problems. He admits the diet he followed when he was younger and into the surgery was less than healthy, and the stress from work and taking care of his 10 kids added to those problems.
The heart is a complex organ easily prone to problems due to a confluence of risk factors. Dr. David Kassel, a cardiologist at Banner Desert Medical Center, said certain activities like smoking and drinking alcoholic beverages create a greater risk factor for heart disease, and people with diabetes or high cholesterol are also at a higher risk for heart problems.
“There are a lot of features that make one person different than the next,” he said.
Some common indicators, however, are a little misleading; weight, for example, isn’t a cause of heart problems; rather, it’s a possible indicator due to a potential connection with inactivity.
Too much activity can cause its own problems; a person who rarely exercises but opts to exert him or herself fully on a hot day is at risk for an issue. Athletes too can see heart problems arise suddenly; basketball players Hank Gathers and Reggie Lewis both died on the court due to heart issues.
That’s why Kassel said the most important factor when it comes to the heart is a person’s family history — someone who has a parent or grandparent who has sustained a heart attack in the past is at a much higher risk for problems than someone without that family history.
At the moment, Kassel said doctors aren’t sure what to do about family genetics, but having that background isn’t an automatic indicator of doom either. People can take steps to cut down on potential problems by exercising an appropriate amount, cutting down on the smoking and drinking, and eating food with less low-density lipoprotein, or LDL. Also known as bad cholesterol, LDL is found in processed foods, red meat, carbohydrates and anything with trans fats and can cause plaque to grow in the arteries. Kassel said that plaque grows slowly at a “glacial” pace, but a tear in plaque causes blood clots that lead to heart attacks.
Limiting the foods with LDL and eating foods with higher levels of good cholesterol, called high-density lipoproteins, or HDL, can reduce the risks. Foods that can lower LDL include fish, oatmeal and nuts, — Kassel said the Mediterranean Diet is a good option — and Kassel said people can take small steps toward that goal by replacing a burger bun with lettuce wrap or going for a grilled chicken sandwich instead.
People with an increased risk should also have their cholesterol levels checked on a regular basis. According to the Mayo Clinic, the average person should have less than 130 milligrams per decimeter of LDL in his or her blood, although Kassel said people at high risk for heart problems should keep their level below 70.
Another important factor Kassel mentioned is knowing the signs for a heart attack, which cover shoulder, arm and throat pain, pressure in the chest and indigestion. That can save valuable time between the attack and surgery — he said the goal is to go from entry into the hospital to surgery within 90 minutes — and reduce the damage it can cause.
“Not all heart attacks are disasters,” Kassel said.
Young has followed several of those tips; he’s lost about 25 pounds since his surgery, works out regularly, and has tried to lessen his stress levels. He also recommends following doctor’s orders to prevent too many trips to the cardiologist.
“I’m hoping I keep myself out of the doctor’s office,” he said.
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