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9 ‘must-ask’ questions for your doctor: The answers may help you live longer

You’ve scheduled an annual checkup with your physician. To get the most from the visit—and get a handle on your heart health—get answers to these nine fundamental questions.

  1. If my parents had heart attacks, will I?
    No one can predict the future, but a history of heart disease in your family does increase your risk. You’ve also inherited a higher risk if you’re African American, Mexican American, Hawaiian or Native American. The good news is that there are medications and treatments today that were not available in the past. Work with your doctor to take advantage of these medical advances.

  2. Are my cholesterol and blood pressure within normal ranges?
    You probably know that both are important indicators of heart health. Cholesterol is measured as low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good,” cholesterol. The levels of each considered acceptable for you will depend on a variety of factors. In general, it’s best to maintain total cholesterol levels below 200 mg/dL.
    As for blood pressure, a normal reading is below 120/80 mm Hg. You are considered to have high blood pressure if two or more separate readings are higher than 120/80 mm Hg.

  3. Should I take medications or aspirin to lower my cholesterol and blood pressure?
    If diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes have not been successful in keeping your cholesterol and blood pressure levels in check, you should certainly ask your doctor what medications can help. Research suggests a daily dose of aspirin may benefit those with a strong family history of heart disease and those who have diabetes; however, your doctor will tell you if it’s appropriate for you.

  4. Can I stop taking my blood-pressure medication once my levels are normal?
    No! Blood pressure can be managed, but it can’t be cured. Most drugs work for no more than a 24-hour period; stop taking your medicine and it’s likely your blood pressure will rise again. If you have other questions about your medication, ask your doctor.

  5. Lately, I become short of breath and feel chest pressure while climbing stairs or carrying heavy groceries. Could this be a sign of heart disease?
    Yes, it could be a sign of angina, or chest discomfort that occurs when the heart doesn’t receive enough blood to keep up with the added demand. People with angina may also experience pressure or pain in the back, shoulders, arms or jaw. Report such symptoms to your cardiologist immediately. He or she will perform a thorough evaluation.

  6. How can I tell the difference between heartburn and a heart attack?
    The “burning” sensation of heartburn usually feels different than the intense pressure felt during a heart attack. With a heart attack, the pain may also radiate to the neck, jaw, shoulders, arms and back. Other symptoms of a heart attack include shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, chills and sweating. When a heart attack strikes, minutes—even seconds—make all the difference. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.

  7. Can you help me stop smoking?
    The Surgeon General has named smoking the single most important modifiable risk factor for heart disease. That ranks it above obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes—the other major controllable risk factors. That said, consider everything from hypnosis to nicotine patches, nicotine gum and going cold turkey. Research suggests that combining a chosen method with physician follow-up increases your chance of success.

  8. What’s the best exercise for my heart?
    That depends on several factors, including your overall health and fitness level. In general, plain old-fashioned walking is a great way to work the heart without putting much strain on the rest of your body. Aim for 30 minutes of activity on most days of the week.

  9. Do I need to lose weight?
    Talk with your doctor about whether you need to shed a few extra pounds for your cardiac well-being. If the answer is yes, he or she can steer you toward a sensible weight-loss program. Losing even just 10 percent of your weight can improve heart health.