Do you need to see a cardiologist?

By Denise Maher

Heart disease and stroke are among adults’ biggest health risks, yet many aren’t able to take full advantage of all the powerful prevention strategies out there. They may know that heart problems run in the family and that their age puts them at higher risk, but they don’t know what to do about it.

While it’s true that some risk factors for heart disease cannot be changed (you’re sort of stuck with your DNA and your age), there are plenty of others that can be readily modified, including your cholesterol levels, blood pressure and weight. “We know from the Nurses Health Study that a healthy lifestyle can result in risk reduction,” says cardiologist Lisa Jackson, M.D., of the University of Michigan Health Systems and spokesperson for the American College of Cardiology. “Women can really improve their risk factors.” Same goes for men!

And seeing a doctor who specializes in lipid disorders or heart disease (even if you haven’t been diagnosed yourself) is just another way you can help manage your risk. These specialists are often able to offer more advanced cholesterol testing as well as integrated nutritional support (many work closely with dietitians). If you have a strong family history—say a parent or sibling was diagnosed with heart disease at a young age—you may benefit from more specialized care. Whether you decide to seek a cardiologist’s opinion or stick with your long-time internist, what matters most is having a solid relationship with your physician. If you can answer yes to the following questions, you and your doc are on the healthy-heart track:

Do you know your numbers?
During a checkup, your doctor looks at your “numbers,” aka your cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well as your blood pressure and body-mass index. Knowing your numbers is an important part of staying healthy—it helps you and your doctor know your risks and track the progress you’re making.

Do you understand your risk factors?
“Being educated is the most important thing,” says cardiologist Dennis Goodman, M.D., director of integrative medicine at New York Medical Associates in New York City. Your doctor can (and should!) certainly review the most common risk factors with you, but you can (and should!) educate yourself, too. Take advantage of resources like AmericanHeart.org, the American Heart Association’s website. You’ll definitely want to check out their free self assessment, called My Life Check.

Other reputable sites, such as RealAge.com, offer free, comprehensive assessment quizzes, as well as personalized advice, that can help you determine the steps you need to take to stay healthy.

Are you working well with your doctor?
In many cases, a good doctor-patient relationship comes down to communication. “Any doctor you should want to see is comfortable discussing things,” says Dr. Goodman. “Come with information, and ask questions.” Don’t be afraid to be direct. The following questions are all fair game: What are you telling me? What do you think I should do and why? And if I do that, what should I expect? If I take this pill, what are the side effects? As Dr. Goodman advises: “If you can’t have an open discussion, go somewhere else.”

Finding your Dr. Right
Ask friends and colleagues if they’ve had a good experience with a cardiologist or internist who specializes in lipid disorders. You can also consult a doctor you do trust for a referral, local hospitals affiliated with university medical schools or sites like ACC.org. “I see a lot of patients who self-refer, “ says Dr. Jackson. “Sometimes people need extra support and reassurance that they’re doing OK.”

Nurses Health Study

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