A Heart-Healthy Lifestyle: Just What the Doctor Ordered
February is American Heart Month, a time to spread awareness of the importance of heart health. This includes a heart-healthy lifestyle. Are doctors doing enough to help patients protect their cardiovascular wellness?
"Take a deep breath and … tell me about your eating habits!"
When you go in for your annual physical examination, your doctor usually checks your cholesterol level, blood pressure and other cardiovascular risk factors. But does your doctor also give you a lifestyle checkup?
Nothing can take the place of heart-healthy living habits when it comes to preventing heart disease. The American Heart Association recently released a science advisory stating that healthcare providers should treat unhealthy behaviors as aggressively as they treat high blood pressure, cholesterol and other heart disease risk factors.
Northwestern University professor of preventive medicine and psychiatry Bonnie Spring, Ph.D., said, "We're talking about a paradigm shift from only treating biomarkers—physical indicators of a person’s risk for heart disease—to helping people change unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, unhealthy body weight, poor-quality diet and lack of physical activity."
This new emphasis on lifestyle choices presents a challenge. Says Spring, "We already treat risk factors that can be measured through a blood sample or a blood pressure reading in a doctor's office, yet people put their health at risk through their behaviors. We can't measure the results of these behaviors in their bodies yet."
In the advisory, which appeared in the journal Circulation, the authors suggest that this challenge could be met with an interdisciplinary team of healthcare providers, including not only cardiologists but also dietitians, psychologists and other behavior-change specialists. They describe a "five A's" strategy:
- Assess a patient's risk behaviors for heart disease.
- Advise change, such as weight loss or exercise.
- Agree on an action plan.
- Assist with treatment.
- Arrange for follow-up care.
For this to work, says Spring, insurance reimbursement policies should be improved to allow registered dietitians, psychologists and others to become part of the primary practice team. "This isn't a problem that can be solved alone by the patient or by the doctor who is strapped for time," she says. "We need to break out of our silos and get ahead of the curve in prevention."
This recommendation is another reminder that heart health is a team effort—and every patient is a VIP on their own team!
The American Heart Association website is a great source of patient information on heart health. Visit the Getting Healthy center to learn about heart-healthy lifestyle subjects such as nutrition, physical activity, smoking and stress management.