Start Early for Heart Health

If you thought heart disease was just something for older people, think again.

Cardiac and coronary problems are seen in younger people, too, and often can be indicated as early as elementary school.

In fact, just weeks ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed new guidelines for evaluating children’s health risks.

Dr. Kevin E. Zawacki, FACC, a cardiologist at Bon Secours Cardiovascular Specialists in Hampton Roads, says heart disease is a continuum that may begin years before a specific event. “Vascular disease begins at a young age and progresses very, very gradually over time and then becomes marked by periods of instability, manifesting as heart attacks, strokes or even sudden death.” Early identification can be critical to stop problems before they escalate.

New Guidelines
The recent report, sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, recommended cholesterol screening for all children between ages 9 and 11 and again at ages 17 to 21. The report also recommends using non-HDL cholesterol as the primary screening measurement, as it predicts the abnormal lipids that will continue into adulthood.

Long-term studies confirm increasing concern about obesity in children and teens and the implications for adult health. Many children today have risk factors such as high cholesterol and lipid levels, hypertension, diabetes, and exposure to smoking.

Reforming
But indicators of future heart problems don’t necessarily equate to a death sentence.

Younger adults with risk factors may want to consider having a coronary calcium scoring or other non-invasive tests to check for plaque buildup. “It can be the thing that forces your hand to start therapy with a statin drug,” said Zawacki. “Or, it can be used as a scared-straight mechanism for the individual.” Prevention, he said, is always preferable to treatment. “A lot of it is just common sense. You get a lot more bang for your buck at the early stage.”

Did you know?
Dr. Zawacki and other Bon Secours physicians sometimes perform a rare non-surgical procedure called a balloon valvuloplasty.

The minimally invasive procedure uses a balloon to stretch the heart valve to improve blood flow. Using a catheter specially designed for the mitral valve, a small deflated balloon is inserted into the right chamber of the heart, passed through a thin wall of tissue and then guided into the left ventricle and inflated, dilating the mitral valve.

Though not often used in this country — few people have had rheumatic fever or other diseases that affect the heart that way — Zawacki learned the procedure during his tours of duty as a Navy physician. “Although I had just joined the practice here in July, we decided there’s no time like the present to start a mitral valvuloplasty program.”

With that start, Zawacki and colleagues hope to build a comprehensive valvular heart disease clinic with a variety of treatment options in Bon Secours Hampton Roads facilities.

+ Learn more about the Bon Secours Heart and Vascular Institute!

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