Improve heart health with strong patient-provider partnerships

By Tom Neal, Highlands-Cashiers Hospital CEO

Since we celebrate National Heart Month every February, it’s a good time to review what we can do to lower our risk for heart disease and heart attack. Unfortunately, heart attack has been the No. 1 cause of death in the United States for more than seven decades, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it is an epidemic.

By raising our awareness about the steps we ourselves can take to lower our risk for a heart attack, we can feel empowered about improving and supporting our heart health.

Even though we have all read and heard about lifestyle factors in relation to heart health many times, I feel it can’t be said too many times. What you eat and how much you move are the two critical everyday lifestyle factors you can improve now to ensure your heart stays strong.

Adopting a healthy diet that consists of a variety of fruits and vegetables, lean protein like chicken and fish, legumes (foods like beans, lentils, and peas), and heart-healthy fats (think nuts, avocados, and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon) is something that goes a long, long way in ensuring that your heart stays in tip-top shape.

Of course, it’s also important to avoid certain foods, including “junk” foods that are highly processed and fast food. It’s also smart to keep your alcohol intake in check and even though this isn’t food, smoking is something many want to do after a meal.

Remember that smoking hurts your heart — and has also been linked to virtually every serious health condition out there, from stroke and diabetes to cancer and dental health problems.

It’s also advised that we get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. This isn’t as much as it sounds like, and it works out to just 30 minutes, five days per week.

The key is finding exercise that you enjoy, whether that’s hiking the Plateau’s beautiful trails, taking a dance class, or going for a run with a friend.

Moving every day and eating well helps keep you within a normal weight range in a time when obesity is a true epidemic in our country. Unfortunately, high rates of obesity in younger people 35-64 are increasing their risk for heart disease earlier in life, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

We know too that physical activity is a great stress reducer as well — and effective stress management is also a big part of taking good care of your heart. Managing stress better has to do with finding healthy substitutes for habits like spending too much time on our screens, addiction to work, or overeating.

Solutions include getting out in nature, allowing yourself time to socialize and do things you enjoy, volunteering, and engaging in a practice like meditation or taking a yoga class.

Getting adequate, high-quality sleep is also something linked to good heart health, so if you suffer with insomnia or suspect you may have sleep apnea, speak with your provider about interventions that can help.

Practices that you can adopt to improve sleep include making your bedroom a screen-free domain, avoiding heavy meals and alcohol, going to bed at the same time each evening, and keeping your bedroom well-ventilated and at a comfortable temperature.

Your primary care provider, as I noted before, is someone you can talk to about the state of your heart, and your habits. You can get a good idea of what habits you can change by “knowing your numbers,” such as your weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol. This can be a starting point for improving your heart health.

I also want to make sure each of you are aware that we have access to a cardiologist on the Plateau. Dr. William Wharton is a board-certified cardiologist who sees patients at the Jane Woodruff Clinic on the hospital campus twice a month. 

I’m also happy to report that cardiology teleconsultations are now available at Highlands-Cashiers Hospital (HCH). If you visit HCH and are having minor cardiac symptoms, we may be able to offer teleconsultation with a board-certified cardiologist. This would allow us to keep you here at our hospital.

This way, you can stay here at HCH and don’t have to be transported to another hospital, though if that is necessary, we would stabilize you here and transport you to Mission Hospital via MAMA, the medical transport helicopter.

We also offer telemedicine for pulmonology, infectious disease, acute stroke, and nephrology (kidney conditions), infectious diseases, and wound care.

A word of warning, however. Lifestyle is one important factor in heart health, but family history also has a significant impact. It’s important to be familiar with heart attack symptoms, and never to ignore them.

Both genders can experience chest pain or tightness, jaw, neck, or back pain, shortness of breath, arm pain, and nausea or vomiting. However, women may also notice pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, indigestion, sweating, and dizziness.  

If you suspect you may be having a heart attack, don’t delay calling 9-1-1 and getting treated. Better to have a false alarm than to suffer more damage to your heart that you may not be able to recover from fully. This is what we mean when we use the term “time is muscle.”

We are also happy to have welcomed board-certified general surgeon Dr. James B. Osborne earlier this year. He performs endoscopic procedures here at HCH and is also a specially trained Hand/Upper Extremity surgeon. Dr. Osborne came to us from SIMED Health in Gainesville, Florida.

I hope this information can prompt a good conversation with your provider about your individual heart health and how you can preserve it. We’re here to help you reach your heart-healthy goals or provide advanced treatment should you need it. 

Tom Neal, RN, MBA, MHA, is the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) of Highlands-Cashiers Hospital.

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