A Loyola University Health System heart expert is warning baby boomers their risk of heart attack is increasing: the 60s are coming and this time, it’s chronological age, not the “swinging” ’60s.
Men enter this higher-risk period in their late 40s; for women, it starts in their mid-50s. “Now that the first batch of baby boomers is turning 60 this year, those born in 1946, the risk is even higher,” said Dr. Fred Leya, professor of medicine/cardiology, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, Maywood, Ill.
For the next 20 years, the U.S. healthcare system could experience a tsunami of heart care demand as millions of boomers turn 60.
Although there is no way to turn back the clock, boomers can take steps to reduce their risk, explained Leya. “First of all, be aware that a normal stress test does not guarantee safety from heart attack,” said Leya, director of Loyola’s cardiac catheterization lab. “A person can have a 50 percent blockage in a vessel leading to their heart, and a stress test will not pick it up.
“That’s why baby boomers need to focus carefully on the state of their health, including lifetime cardiovascular risk control,” said Leya, Loyola’s director of interventional cardiology. “It’s also important to understand that a routine physical examination by a physician cannot detect a calcification and thickening of a vessel in the heart or a thickening of the vessel to the brain.
“The alphabet soup of heart tests and procedures can be confusing, especially when people think heart disease will never happen to them,” said Leya. “Age and genetics catches up with people even if they have followed a reasonably healthy lifestyle, so it is important to monitor heart and vessel health.”
“Genetics, on top of smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, lack of exercise and other cardiovascular risk factors, plays a critical role in developing atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries,” said Leya.
To reduce the risk of heart attack, baby boomers should learn their risk factors and control them. “Know your numbers, the good and bad cholesterol, HDL and LDL; blood pressure, heart rate, glucose and check them annually,” said Leya. “Be sure to aggressively lower your bad cholesterol using a combination of diet, exercise and statins.”
Everyone should have a stress test at this age, but when in doubt, have a high resolution CT scan or a Doppler ultrasound to detect vascular abnormalities. The test results should be read and interpreted by an experienced cardiologist, he noted. Be wary of stand-alone imaging centers that are not staffed by specialists to read the results properly.
“Most important, don’t think that a pain in the chest, shoulder or arm is just overuse or strain,” said Leya. “Be sure to have it checked out or call 911.”
Though heart disease has stayed the same, the treatments are better and faster.
Baby boomers who are used to quick fixes aren’t going to want open-heart surgery that will lay them up for weeks. Instead, they want a minimally invasive procedure that will get them home the same day or within a few days. Technological advances can help meet this demand. “There is less pain and easier rehab associated with the majority of interventions, too,” noted Leya.
From rotablation, which pulverizes plaque into microscopic particles; to atherectomy, which cuts or shaves the plaque; numerous cath lab tests and procedures are keeping patients out of the operating room. However, angioplasty with stents is one of the most common.
For the past 20 years, cardiologists have been using stents, small stainless steel coils or scaffolds that are used with angioplasty to keep blood vessels open and maintain blood flow to the heart. The new generation of stents reduces the risk of restenosis (renarrowing) of blood vessels after angioplasty.
For example, for certain coronary artery disease patients, a drug-coated stent delivers medication that inhibits excessive cell growth into the just-opened blood vessel, reducing the risk of renarrowing of the vessel lumen and a clot formation when the cells die.
Leya said that stents produce immediate results. The patients will have better blood flow and feel better as a result. “That is good news for the hundreds of thousands of people who may need angioplasty and a stent this year,” he said.
“It is especially appropriate for diabetics, because they have smaller arteries and thus a greater risk of restenosis of coronary vessels following angioplasty,” said Leya.
U.S. News & World Report ranks Loyola the number one hospital in Illinois for heart care and heart surgery. This is the fourth year in a row that the magazine’s “America’s Best Hospitals” issue has so honored Loyola. Solucient, a health data company, selected Loyola as one of the 100 top heart hospitals in the United States.
Visit the Loyola University Health System Web site www.loyolamedicine.org for more information.