How To Protect Yourself From a Sudden Heart Attack

By Radley Griffin, M.D.

We often hear that heart disease is the number one killer of Americans. What we don’t often hear is that in the majority of cases, heart disease is preventable.

That’s good news!

The bad news is that by the time major concerns like arterial blockages are discovered, it can be too late to reverse the damage.

We’re interested in addressing heart disease for two big reasons:

  1. Because it’s the number one killer of Americans.
  2. Because it’s preventable and treatable.

Yes, the risk factors for heart disease and heart attacks are complicated and vast, but fortunately for us all, these factors are something that we can drastically shift — especially if we catch them early.

So how can we detect early signs of heart disease before your heart reaches an unhealthy state?

In addition to the standard testing, we regularly recommend a few additional tests to monitor your heart health and to help you take proactive measures to prevent a heart attack from ever occurring.

How Well Do Standard Tests Prevent Heart Attacks?

If you look into the statistics on heart disease and related deaths, you might be surprised to find that the standard screening tests aren’t as effective as many people think.

For example, one mainstay test identifies high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol, in the blood. While this certainly can be an indicator of poor heart health, research has shown that roughly 75% of people who experience a heart attack do not have a high level of LDL.

Furthermore, as many as 50% of people who die from heart-related illness do not have prior history or existing symptoms of heart disease.

This means that the first symptom a person experiences of their heart disease could be the heart attack that kills them. And that just isn’t acceptable for a largely preventable disease.

3 Indicators That Can Help Prevent a Heart Attack

Why aren’t the typical screening tools for heart disease — cholesterol, stress tests, etc. — giving doctors an adequate picture of what’s going on with their patients’ heart health? The problem is that by the time troubling results show up on these tests — if they show up at all — the heart damage is already pretty far along.

But through just a few additional tests, we can get a more complete heart-health picture for our members and take steps toward early prevention for heart attacks.

We monitor three additional primary indicators: inflammation, plaque, and calcium buildup.

Looking for Inflammation

If you see a car with smoke leaking from under the hood, chances are that car is burning oil. Something inefficient is happening in the car’s system, and now that system is damaged.

The human body also has indicators that tell us when inflammation is present. The goal is to detect markers of inflammation before smoke billows from under the hood, so to speak.

What Causes Inflammation?

Stress and its associated hormones cause a lot of inflammation in the body. Let’s consider sleep apnea, for example.

A person with sleep apnea stops breathing frequently while they sleep, often due to fat tissue around their neck pressing on their airway. This sudden halt in breathing causes them to wake repeatedly during the night, which causes the body to continually release stress hormones, leading to inflammation.

When the body is in a constant state of inflammation from stress, the arteries get a lot of “wear and tear.” To revisit the car analogy: If you regularly drive along bumpy roads at high speeds, your tires and other car systems get much more wear and tear, which takes a toll on the health of the car over time.

Sleep apnea is a very bumpy road.

Other common causes of inflammation are things like smoking, diet, and high blood pressure, which leads to inflammation and blood vessel damage.

Why Is Inflammation Bad?

Essentially, inflammation just indicates some level of problem or damage in the body.

If you sprain your ankle, what do you see? Your ankle gets hot, red, and swollen — inflamed. This is your body responding to damage by sending extra blood and fluid to the area to make repairs.

When something — like high blood pressure — causes damage in the heart’s arteries, your body responds in the same way. Inflammation occurs, and while it’s a normal immune response, it can further contribute to the damage in those arteries.

Inflammation related to the coronary arteries (the arteries that bring blood and oxygen to the heart) is the earliest sign of the development of heart disease.

Looking for Plaque

Plaque follows inflammation in the coronary arteries.

Plaque is a fatty deposit that begins to appear inside arteries after they experience injury and inflammation. It’s a byproduct of the healing process, but over time it builds up on artery walls and restricts the flow of blood to your heart.

Ready for a gross analogy? You can think of plaque buildup in the arteries almost like the forming of a pimple under your skin. Sometimes it just stays under the skin, but sometimes it grows until it’s ready to pop.

In the arteries, plaque can also “pop,” or rupture. If a plaque ruptures, blood clots form in response and can block the flow of blood to the heart, causing a heart attack.

This is why it’s important to evaluate how much plaque a person has in their arteries when screening for heart disease.

Looking for Calcium Buildup

The next stage in the process of heart disease is calcification of the coronary arteries. This can begin in young adults, but it takes a long time for the calcium to build up to the point of blocking blood flow. We usually see severe calcium buildup only in the arteries of older adults.

To get a good picture of what calcium buildup does, imagine a person with bad arthritis in their hands. Their knuckles look thick and knobby, and they have difficulty moving their fingers. Over time, as arthritis repeatedly damaged their joints, calcium deposits built up in the damaged tissue, stiffening their hands and causing those bony growths.

Similar calcium buildup can happen in the arteries after years of damage. Once your arteries have too much calcification, they become stiff and clogged, like old pipes. When blood can no longer get through, this causes a heart attack.

What 3 Major Tests Do We Use To Help Prevent a Heart Attack?

As with all of the body’s systems, preventative medicine is your heart’s best friend. By adding these additional tests, we get a much more complete picture of our members’ heart health and a much more effective avenue to preventing heart attacks.

First, we use blood work to look for specific markers that indicate the level of inflammation in your body, especially related to your heart and arteries. Blood work can also give us an idea of the level of plaque in your arteries.

We also use an electrocardiogram (EKG), which is a common and noninvasive test that records the electrical signaling from your heart. It can help reveal past damage that impacts the heart’s electricity.

Another exciting test we use is called coronary computed tomography angiography (CCTA). CCTA is a noninvasive imaging test that allows us to look inside the arteries to see if plaque or buildup is present and to what extent. These detailed images help us to prescribe the right dietary and lifestyle changes, medication, or procedures as needed to prevent a future heart attack.

Personalized Healthcare: The Best Way To Prevent a Heart Attack

No two people have the same health journey. Each has his or her own history, conditions, and circumstances, and each requires an approach unique to them. For this reason, everyone’s heart health plan should be extremely personalized.

The specialized testing we use at Griffin Concierge Medical allows us to tailor each member’s healthcare. We believe that the statistics can change and that personalized, high-quality care can prevent heart attacks.