Cardiovascular disease (CVD) affects the heart and blood vessels which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. CVD is the #1 cause of death in the U.S., claiming over 650,000 lives per year, even though a large majority of heart disease and stroke events are preventable through lifestyle changes. The key to preventing CVD is eating right, exercising, and regular checkups and lab testing when needed.
Cardiovascular disease can mean a number of things including heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes. Most heart disease complications result from atherosclerosis which is a buildup of plaque in the arteries. When this blockage prevents blood flow, a clot forms and can cause heart attacks and strokes.
A heart attack occurs when the blot clot cuts off blood flow of an artery completely and part of the muscle supplied dies. Most people survive their first heart attack, but it is definitely a call for help from your heart. Your doctor may recommend blood pressure or cholesterol medication and lifestyle changes (like diet and exercise) depending on the severity of the heart attack.
When a blood vessel that supplies the brain gets blocked, usually by a clot, this causes a stroke. Strokes can result in permanent loss of walking ability, memory, or speech. After a stroke, many people need extensive rehabilitation.
Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors
The American Heart Association tracks seven key health factors and behaviors to gauge the cardiovascular health of the nation called “Life’s Simple 7”. Life’s Simple 7 include: not-smoking, physical activity, healthy diet, body weight, and control of cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar. Knowing the risk factors of heart disease is only step 1, making a screening appointment is an imperative next step.
Heart Disease Screening Tests
Heart disease screening is the only way to know if you have high blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood glucose levels. Oftentimes these symptoms go unnoticed, and there are many myths surrounding CVD, therefore it is dangerous to assume you have a healthy heart without getting a preventative screening. Although the rates of heart disease are higher among older people, everyone needs to be conscious of their heart health even from a young age.
Heart Disease Trends, 2008-2018
SOURCE: NCHS, National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). Excel and PowerPoint: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/hus/contents2019.htm#Figure-012
Brandon Bellows, PharmD., M.S., recommends, “screening for these risk factors should start in young adulthood as lifetime exposure to CVD risk factors increases the risk of CVD later in life.
Screening for CVD risk factors should be done regularly with your physician and can also be done between visits (e.g., checking your blood pressure) at your home or pharmacy, or in other community settings, such as churches or barbershops. Reducing your risk of CVD starts with screening and changing everyday behaviors.”
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Blood Pressure Screening
Monitoring your blood pressure is arguably the easiest way to ensure heart health. By keeping your blood pressure within the healthy range (below 120/80 mm Hg), you reduce the strain on your heart, arteries, and kidneys. Blood pressure monitors are not just available in a doctor’s office but are also often located in grocery stores, pharmacies, and other community spaces. Read up on the correct way to measure and interpret your blood pressure to be in control of your heart health.
Heart disease screenings also include a cholesterol screening, called a Lipid Panel, which requires a blood sample. Sometimes the provider will offer a finger-stick blood sample to measure levels of cholesterol to determine your risk of developing atherosclerosis With Mira, the customer service team can help you find a nearby location for a same-day lab test.
Measuring your glucose is not only an important heart disease screening but also an important diabetes screening. High blood glucose, or “blood sugar”, puts you at risk for developing insulin resistance, prediabetes, and diabetes. The A1C test measures your average blood sugar levels over the past three months. If you are overweight you are at higher risk for having high blood sugar and should seek additional heart disease screenings as well.
C-reactive Protein Screening
C-reactive protein is an indicator of inflammation in the body and can suggest the presence of atherosclerosis. When arteries are blocked with plaque, the body releases this protein. A simple finger-prick test can inform you if you have abnormal levels of c-reactive protein in your blood.
Carotid Artery Ultrasound (Plaque) Screening
In addition to blood tests, there are various invasive and non-invasive heart disease screenings. One common screening is the Carotid Artery Ultrasound Screening that identifies black build-up in the two large blood vessels in the neck. Using ultrasound technology, this non-invasive test measures your blood flow and creates images for your physician to review. Adults over 40 years old with two or more risk factors can discuss this option with their doctor.
Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD) Ultrasound
While the Carotid Artery Ultrasound Screening focuses on arteries in the neck, the PAD ultrasound screens for plaque buildup in the arteries that supply the legs. People who have diabetes or are smokers are at the highest risk for PAD due to reduced circulation.
EKG screenings can detect irregular heartbeats known as Atrial Fibrillation. Someone who has an irregular heartbeat is at higher risk for blood clots which can cause a stroke. Many people living with Atrial Fibrillation do not know it, making EKG screening especially important.
Recommended Schedule for Heart Disease Screening
|Blood Pressure||Each regular healthcare visit or at least once per year if blood pressure is less than 120/80 mm Hg|
|Cholesterol (lipid panel)||Every 4-6 years for normal-risk adults; more often if any you have elevated risk for heart disease and stroke|
|Blood Glucose (A1C)||At least every three years for people 45+ or more if you are at increased risk for diabetes|
|C-reactive protein||For those at high risk for heart attacks|
|Discuss smoking, physical activity, and diet||Each regular healthcare visit with a provider|
Heart Disease Screening Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Heart disease continues to be a leading cause of death in the U.S. despite efforts targeted at improving well-being and increasing preventative care. In order to take control of your heart health, we have answered some important questions below.
When should I get a heart disease screening test?
As recommended by the American Heart Association, you should begin heart disease screenings at 20 years old. Routine blood work is never a bad idea, but to avoid using unnecessary care, most intense heart disease screenings are appropriate for people 40 years and older. If you are at increased risk for heart disease, talk with your doctor to determine a heart disease screening plan that is right for you.
Where can I get a heart disease screening test?
To get a heart disease screening, you can make an appointment with your doctor. If you do not currently have a primary care physician, you can also get an annual checkup and regular health screenings at your local urgent care. Pharmacies and grocery stores often have blood pressure monitors for the public as well.
What can I do to prevent heart disease?
Above all else, a healthy diet low in salt and alcohol and sufficient exercise is most important to prevent and reduce your risk of heart disease. The CDC recommends getting at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week which is about 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.
You can start monitoring your blood pressure, cholesterol intake, and blood glucose levels to determine if you need to see a doctor. There are also apps to help you monitor your blood pressure at your convenience.
How common is heart disease?
Every year, about 200,000 more people die from CVD, heart disease and stroke, than the next leading cause of death, cancer. There are about 800,000 deaths per year from CVD and 600,000 from cancer. As of 2019, 4.6% of adults have been diagnosed with heart disease.
A healthy diet and exercise are key to a long life, but that alone is not enough to ensure you are in optimal health. Heart disease symptoms can often go unnoticed which is why heart disease screening is so important.
Stay up to date with heart disease screenings and other preventative care services at your local urgent care by signing up for Mira. For $45 per month, you can obtain same-day lab tests, low-cost urgent care visits, and discounts off prescriptions you may need. Mira also partners with hundreds of gyms nationwide so you can exercise your way to a healthy heart.
This article is informed by Brandon Bellows, PharmD, MS who specializes in hypertension and cardiovascular disease prevention research at the Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine at Columbia University.