‘Pick small goals’ to improve heart health

Doctor listening to male patient's chest using a stethoscope.

Heart health is important. Just ask Scott Kowalski. On May 12, 2014, Scott suffered a stroke caused by a heart issue. He had just pulled into his driveway at home. Without warning, his left side became paralyzed and he collapsed.

As he was transported to the hospital, not knowing how things would work out, Scott was worried about his kids and concerned his wife would have to care for him for the rest of their lives.

Heart issues can develop at any time. Scott was in pretty good shape. He didn’t smoke. He wasn’t overweight. Yet his heart held a hidden condition that had not been diagnosed.

“I had no risk factors for stroke. Unknown to me, I had a heart condition—PFO—which is a hole in my heart. One in four people have this and may not even know it,” Scott explained.

Scott Kowalski
Scott Kowalski

PFO, or patent foramen ovale, is one of two kinds of holes in the heart. The other type, atrial septal defect (ASD), is a congenital heart defect. PFO is caused after birth, when a hole in the heart wall between the left and right atria fails to close. A few months after birth, the hole is completely sealed in about 75% of people. When it remains unsealed, it’s called a PFO. Most people with a PFO do not have issues, and some may not be aware they have a PFO at all. However, problems can arise when the blood leaking from the right atrium to the left contains a clot.

Fortunately for Scott and his family, he made a full recovery. Many aren’t so lucky.

Stroke, a disease that affects the arteries leading to and within the brain, is the No. 5 cause of death in the United States and the No. 1 cause of disability. In 2016, 142,142 people died from stroke. Add to that number the 635,260 people killed by heart disease in 2016, and you can see the wide-ranging impact of heart disease and stroke in our country. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in America, and about every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S. has a heart attack. Each of the more than 777,000 people killed by stroke and heart disease has a family, which means millions of lives are touched by these deaths.

Reduce your risk

Fighting heart disease can seem daunting. There are some major risk factors you can’t control. For example, Scott had an undiagnosed hole in his heart. Other risk factors that can’t be controlled include getting older, being male, and having heart disease in your family. Yet while these factors might hang over you, there are lifestyle changes you can make to help lower the odds of heart disease.

These are risk factors for heart disease you can avoid or manage. They include:

  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity and being overweight
  • Diabetes

Other factors that can contribute to heart disease risk include:

  • Stress
  • Alcohol
  • Diet and nutrition

Signs of a heart attack

There are warning signs you can watch for to help you make the decision to seek medical care.

When a heart attack occurs, it’s vital to get medical treatment as fast as possible. Some heart attacks are sudden and intense, but most start slowly with mild pain or discomfort. Here are symptoms that, if seen, indicate you should call 911:

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes—or it may go away and then return. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath. This can occur with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs. Other possible signs include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness.

Symptoms can vary between men and women. Women are slightly more likely to experience nausea, back pain, or jaw pain. These signs might not be related to a heart attack, but if you’re not sure, it’s always better to have the symptoms checked out. When a heart attack strikes, minutes matter.

Raising awareness of heart disease

February is American Heart Month. Scott, our survivor mentioned earlier, is WPS’ Executive Vice President of Business Development and Marketing. He also has been a member of the American Heart Association board for several years. Since his stroke, Scott has worked hard to make others aware of heart health risks and how to identify a stroke. He also increased his involvement on the AHA board, and he is now serving as its chair.

“Managing blood pressure, limiting salty foods and alcohol intake, not smoking, and staying active all contribute greatly to reducing the risk of stroke and heart attack,” Scott said. “Do whatever it is that brings you happiness to reduce your stress. Pick small goals—something you can deal with now.”

You or a loved one may have been affected by heart disease. To help prevent future heart issues, watch the risk factors listed above. You’ll find many resources online to help you out—here are seven to get you started. Our Wellness page also offers resources on heart health. For more information, talk to your doctor.

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