Decode the doctor’s orders to get the most out of every visit
By: Abby Lerner
With doctor’s offices busier than ever, you’re lucky if you get 20 minutes with your M.D. Which is why it’s not surprising that even when it comes to your most vital organ, the advice you receive can sound somewhat boilerplate: Exercise regularly, watch your diet, don’t smoke, and limit your drinking—right? But there’s more information lurking within your doctor’s language than you hear. So we asked George Vetrovec, M.D., the chair of cardiology at the Medical College of Virginia, to identify the details your doctor may not be telling you. Read carefully, your heart’s health depends on it.
1. The real facts on smoking:Sure, your doctor has made it clear that smoking is bad for your health (in more ways than you can count), but one detail you probably haven’t heard is that cutting out cigarettes will reduce your risk of heart attack by 50 percent after just one year, according to Dr. Vetrovec. “Your risk returns almost back to that of a nonsmoker after one year without cigarettes.” It’s just one more reason to quit cold turkey.
2. What it means to exercise:Doctors are always recommending exercise—it adds years to your expiration date. But when it comes to staying healthy, is cardio king or do weights win out? The verdict depends on personal preference and physical ability, but a few things apply to every guy. “Everyone needs to do something dynamic at least three times a week (walk or jog),” Dr. Vetrovec says. “And if you lift weights, they need to be weights you can breathe through.” That means you don’t have to clench your jaw just to make it through a set.
3. The risk of missing your heart meds. Pill bottles are designed with the dosage shown in large font for a reason. “Lapses in medication for even one day can cause serious problems like blood pressure shooting up,” Dr. Vetrovec says. This is especially true for guys who have been treated for coronary artery disease. Try to stay on schedule as often as possible. If you miss more than two days of meds, call to your doctor to guarantee you’re not at risk.
4. How to decode erectile dysfunction. Erectile dysfunction (ED) is a strong marker of cardiovascular disease, according to Dr. Vetrovec. “It’s usually vascularly related,” he says. But there’s another side to the story. Certain drugs like beta-blockers (high blood-pressure medications) can cause ED. Be sure to ask your doctor if ED is a potential side effect before he writes you a prescription.
5. The minor misfortune of being male. You may be young and fit now, but the older you get the more your (few) vices come back to haunt you. “A man in his sixties who has ever smoked in his life, even without any kind of symptoms, is at risk for developing an aneurism,” Dr. Vetrovec says. Schedule an echocardiogram every 10 years to be sure your ticker has nothing to hide.
6. You can (and should) do something about high blood pressure. “Doctors often deliver the news you have high blood pressure, but don’t give any facts beyond that,” Dr. Vetrovec says. So what are the facts? “Taking someone from an elevated blood pressure to a normal blood pressure (119/79 mm HG or lower) has about a one in 11 chance of preventing stroke or heart attack.” So one out of every eleven men treated for high blood pressure will completely avoid problems. In addition to diet and exercise, treatment for hypertension (high blood pressure) usually involves medication. Talk to your doctor to learn more about your stage of high blood pressure or if you have other contributing medical problems.
7. The importance of staying calm and cool. Chronic stress is a real risk factor, Dr. Vetrovec says. “You have to figure out what causes your stress and look for solutions.” Reducing stress is just as important as diet and exercise, especially in terms of heart health.