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If You Don't Have a History of Heart Disease, Should You Still Get Your Heart Checked?

Daniel Soffer, MDAre you worried about the health of your heart? Dr. Daniel Soffer shares why you might want to get it checked out. Dr. Soffer is a physician in the Penn Preventive Cardiovascular Program.

Maybe you're one of those fortunate people whose family members live until 100, and even at that age are still healthy. You can't think of anyone who has had a heart attack, and you, of course, feel fine.

That's the trick with heart disease. It's sneaky. It might develop with no symptoms or family history—until you end up in the hospital. Even if you don't have a family history, the only way to know for sure that your heart is healthy is to get it checked.

Heart disease, also called cardiovascular disease, can lead to a heart attack, stroke, or other serious issues. And it's the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S.: one out of every four deaths stems from a heart-related condition.

Genealogist looking at family photos and family treeHeart disease is typically caused by a buildup of fatty deposits in the walls of the arteries, also called atherosclerosis. This blocks the blood's ability to flow through the heart, veins and arteries to other vital parts of your body.

Getting your heart checked is important. Not everyone presents with the tell-tale chest pain or discomfort when they're having a heart attack or another cardiovascular event. Women are especially prone to experiencing more subtle symptoms like feeling shortness of breath or nausea—or not having any symptoms at all.

Pay attention to our heart

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends regular doctor visits to check your blood pressure and cholesterol, starting when you're 20. For blood pressure, that would mean getting it looked at during every visit, or at least once every two years if your blood pressure is normal.

Doctors usually check your cholesterol every four to six years for signs of trouble, and more often if you have a family history.

The AHA also recommends that you have your blood sugar tested starting at age 45, because it can tell you whether you have prediabetes or diabetes. People with diabetes have a higher chance of having a heart attack or stroke, says the American Diabetes Association.

Another tool that you can use to get a better picture of your risk of heart disease is our online Heart Risk Profiler.

Taking it a step further

But Daniel Soffer, MD, who sees patients in the Preventive Cardiovascular Program at Penn Medicine, notes that blood pressure and cholesterol might not give you the full picture of whether your heart is healthy.

"If you make the decision only based on whether they have high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, diabetes or whether they smoke, you're going to miss a significant portion of those patients who have heart disease," he says. "And maybe just as egregious, if you just treated people based on whether they have high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, you may end up overtreating a lot of people."

"The thing that most doctors don't do is atherosclerosis imaging," Dr. Soffer explains.

There are two ways that you can have your heart checked for atherosclerosis: a CT scan or an ultrasound. Both are painless, and have low-dose radiation and no ionizing radiation, respectively.

"Middle-aged patients should go in and see their doctors to have their major cardiovascular risk factors evaluated," Dr. Soffer recommends. "And consider atherosclerosis imaging. That's a conversation that they have to have with their doctor."

Live a healthy lifestyle, no matter what

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle - which includes eating fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly, and not smoking—can go a long way in lowering anyone's risk of developing heart disease.

After all, your doctor might be able to diagnose heart disease, but a healthy lifestyle is your best bet for preventing it.

About this Blog

The Penn Heart and Vascular blog provides the latest information on heart disease prevention, nutrition and breakthroughs in cardiovascular care.

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