Heart health depends on choices

by Kelly Deichert
Air University Public Affairs

2/18/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Education is the key to preventing heart disease since most of its contributing factors are preventable.

Indicators include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking addiction, a sedentary lifestyle and obesity.

Other factors, such as age, sex or family history, cannot be controlled, but patients can use this information to make better lifestyle choices, said Lt. Col. Bradley Olsson, the health care integrator at the Maxwell clinic.

Patients with high cholesterol and a family history of high cholesterol should start discussing medications with their doctors early, even as young as 35. Colonel Olsson said that controlling the risk factors now will prevent heart damage later.

He encourages patients to discuss risk factors with their doctors to establish an appropriate course of action.

"Don't be afraid of it. Be aware of it," Colonel Olsson said. "Start thinking about if you want to see your grandchildren or great-grandchildren."

Since heart health is integral to overall health, small changes can often trigger larger ones.

For example, if patients quit smoking, they will increase their lung capabilities, allowing them to exercise more and lower their blood pressure.

"The heart is a muscle. If you exercise it, it becomes more efficient," he said. "Even people who have had heart attacks can recover a great deal of their heart function."

Education also is important to recognize signs of distress and act to save lives when heart disease becomes extreme.

People tend to think of heart attacks as dramatic. A man will clutch at his chest or grab at his arm and fall down. Colonel Olsson said signs can be more subtle but just as dangerous.

Some male patients experience difficulty breathing and a squeezing sensation in their chest. Often they refer to the feeling of an elephant sitting on their chest.

Women's early warning signs are unusual fatigue, sleep disturbances and shortness of breath. Since these factors are often present in women's lives, an overall health history is needed to indicate heart disease.

"Heart disease is the No. 1 killer, yet most of the contributing factors are preventable," Colonel Olsson said. But the patients need to make that first step.

"This is your life. This is your choice," he said.

The Centers for Disease Control stated that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. and is a major cause of disability. About every 25 seconds, an American will have a coronary event, and every minute someone will die from one.

To draw attention to the importance of heart health, February has been declared "American Heart Month" by presidential proclamation since 1963, according to the American Heart Association website.

Clinic to boost preventive medicine staff

Preventive medicine is taking a major step toward making Maxwell heart healthy.

The clinic will hire three disease-management nurses to look for early signs of illness and provide education and prevention services. They are subject-matter experts who will work one-on-one with patients to be proactive about long-term health.

"This is a radical departure from the clinic organization of the past," said Lt. Col. Bradley Olsson, the health care integrator at the Maxwell clinic. The nurses are part of the Family Health Initiative, which will be operational April 1.

Each nurse will monitor patients' health care, ensuring they receive correct tests, medications and education for diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and more.

"We will know you, what your disease is and how to keep it under control," Colonel Olsson said.

More information will be released as it becomes available.