For peace of mind, get a heart test

You can’t help but think about mortality when you’re walking on a treadmill with sensors strapped to your chest, tracking the response of your heart.

I had my first echocardiogram in my 20s, after experiencing chest tightness. I thought little of it at the time – my mortality wasn’t a concern 30 years ago – even though the test revealed that I had a slightly enlarged aorta, the crucial artery that delivers blood to the heart and other parts of the body.

This was nothing to fear, no need for medication. What was required were common sense good health habits. Did I follow that advice for much of the next three decades? No, and for years I felt no motivation to do anything about it, though heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.

It scared me to think about any of this, until an acquaintance offered to set up a new echocardiogram through Mercy General Hospital. I agreed to do the test because fear is a terrible reason to disregard your health. According to the American Heart Association, an estimated 785,000 Americans will have their first heart attack this year.

One of the many messages promoted by health care professionals as part of American Heart Month in February is that there is so much we think we know about heart disease, but don’t.

For example, heart disease is not just a fear for senior citizens. People at middle age or younger are increasingly vulnerable because risk factors such as Type 2 diabetes and obesity are more common among younger people. More U.S. women die from heart disease than from any other cause, including cancer.

Preventive care begins with a risk assessment; in my case, an echocardiogram. Nearly 8,000 of the tests are performed annually at Mercy General alone. Patients, monitored closely, walk on a treadmill with heart monitors attached to their chests. Doppler ultrasound captures vivid images of the heart as it responds to increasing levels of physical exertion.

Recently, Mercy opened the Alex G. Spanos Heart and Vascular Center, a state-of-the-art hospital dedicated solely to cardiac patients. It’s an impressive facility in a city increasingly known for its health care sector.

Exercise and a sensible diet – along with monitoring and managing your blood pressure and cholesterol levels – are simple ways to decrease your chances of ever being a patient there.

I was lucky. In my echocardiogram, I reached 86 percent of my maximum predicted heart rate. My heart responded normally, and it was a great feeling to be on top of the most important health detail in my life.

How to achieve that peace of mind for yourself? Call your doctor.

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.