September 30, 2022 by John Fernandez
Baptist Health’s Chief Population Health Officer: 2022 Brings New Hope for Heart Health
American Heart Month provides a valuable opportunity for people to take stock of their cardiovascular health, says Jonathan A. Fialkow, M.D., chief population health officer for Baptist Health. It’s also an opportunity for the medical community to drive home the fundamentals of heart health, which he says include knowing your “dashboard” numbers, being aware of your personal risk factors and taking active steps every day to maintain your cardiovascular health.
Dr. Fialkow, a cardiologist who also serves as deputy director of Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, says there are several reasons to be encouraged about cardiovascular health today. “I think more people now are aware of their blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar levels, and how their numbers fall within federal health guidelines.”
Also, Dr. Fialkow notes, more primary care doctors are now using coronary calcium scoring for early cardiac risk assessment, which he says can be an excellent indicator of one’s future cardiovascular health.
“Your calcium score is determined by a quick, simple and inexpensive CT scan of your chest that allows us to assess the amount of calcium in your artery walls,” he explains. “With this, we can predict what cardiovascular issues you’re at risk for five or maybe 10 years down the road, and start taking steps to minimize those risks.”
Minimizing risks starts with making good – “or, at least, better” – decisions every day, says Dr. Fialkow, says, adding that diet is an easy and obvious place to start your journey to better heart health.
“More people now are embracing low-carb diets and incorporating more plant-based foods, which is great,” Dr. Fialkow says. “I think we’re also beginning to understand that it’s not so much about limiting the fat in our diet as it is about avoiding all the processed and refined foods. These contribute to obesity, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, all of which can increase your risk of heart disease.”
If you are at risk for heart disease, new technology promises to make it possible to detect a heart attack before it even happens, according to Dr. Fialkow. “Soon, we may be able to implant a tiny device in the patient’s chest that allows us to remotely monitor their vitals 24 hours a day, whether they’re at home, at work, or on vacation,” he explains. “If certain conditions develop, the device alerts the patient to seek help immediately, and then allows us to see what exactly was going on with their heart at the time.”
Another reason for encouragement, Dr. Fialkow says, is that certain medications developed to fight diabetes have been shown to significantly decrease heart disease. “We’re looking at these medications not just in diabetic patients but in other high-risk people, and we’re seeing very promising results.”
In addition, Dr. Fialkow says that medications such as semaglutide are helping people with Type 2 diabetes, who are at high risk for heart disease, decrease both their weight and blood sugar levels. “We’re looking at the efficacy of these drugs in helping protect against heart disease in non-diabetics, too.”
And what about the link between one’s cardiovascular health and stress? “I think the more we talk about this, the better,” says Dr. Fialkow. “The pandemic has brought untold stress and uncertainty – and, for many, incredible sadness – to our lives for the past two years. Even though the long-term effects of COVID-19 on our cardiovascular health have yet to be documented, we know that stress itself contributes to heart disease and other conditions, and there’s been plenty of that.”
Dr. Fialkow says that taking care of yourself and your heart starts with finding a diet and exercise routine that works for you, and doing something – anything, every day – that gets you closer to your goal. In particular, Dr. Fialkow offers these tips for staying heart-healthy in 2022:
• Get checked out by your doctor.
• Consider medical therapy for risk reduction, if needed (i.e., medications to control blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar).
• Start exercising, and keep at it – try to get 30 minutes a day, every day.
• Focus on stress management and taking care of your mental health.
• Minimize the amount of processed or refined foods you eat, and limit alcohol.
• Get a good night’s sleep – there’s a clear link between sleep disorders and heart disease
• Pay attention to your body and tell your doctor if something doesn’t feel right.
Also, Dr. Fialkow advises, learn to recognize the symptoms of cardiovascular disease, which can include:
• Excessive shortness of breath with less activity
• Tightness in chest, jaw or arm
• Shiny skin at ankles and/or swelling of ankles
• Shortness of breath when lying flat in bed
• Indigestion with activity
• General fatigue
“More than 800,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 during the pandemic, and that’s just an awful number when you think about it,” says Dr. Fialkow. “But we lose 800,000 Americans every single year to cardiovascular diseases, so there’s clearly more work to be done in education and screening – not just now during American Heart Month but throughout the year.”