February is National Heart Month, making it the perfect time to bring awareness to heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease “kills more people than all forms of cancer combined,” which comes to about 2,300 people each day. While 72% of Americans feel they aren’t at risk, heart disease can affect both men and women, even those in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. The disease is, however, more common and more severe in those aged 65 years and up.
As older adults rapidly become the fastest-growing population in the U.S., it’s up to healthcare professionals to help them prevent or navigate heart disease. Below, we’ll go over what heart disease is, what causes it, and how you can help those managing this incurable, but treatable disease.
What is Heart Disease?
Heart disease is a chronic condition caused by an accumulation of fatty deposits in the walls of the coronary arteries, leading to a lack of blood flow and oxygen to the heart. This decreased blood flow, oxygen, and blood nutrients will eventually weaken the heart and cause chest pain, constant discomfort, reduced blood flow throughout the body, and possibly a heart attack.
While heart disease does not present many noticeable symptoms in its early stages, there are signs to watch for. The signs of heart disease include:
- Pain, numbness, and/or tingling in one’s back, arms, shoulders, neck, and/or jaw
- Swelling in one’s neck, stomach, legs, ankles, and/or feet
- Shortness of breath
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Chest pain
- Irregular arrhythmia
- Nausea or vomiting
- Cold sweats
- Reduced physical abilities or issues performing normal activities
How to Prevent Heart Disease
While heart disease is common, there are a few ways to avoid it. These prevention measures include:
Increased physical activity. Getting at least 150 minutes of exercise each week with activities like walking, dancing, biking, or low-intensity workouts will lower the risk of heart disease.
Quit smoking. Over time, smoking damages the artery walls and increases one’s chances of having a heart attack, stroke, heart disease, or cancer.
Follow a healthy diet. Avoid foods that are high in trans fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt. Instead, incorporate more vegetables, fruits, and high-fiber foods.
Maintain a healthy weight by combining both exercise and a healthy diet into your daily life.
Control and manage other conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and/or high cholesterol.
Cut back on alcohol consumption. Men should not drink more than two drinks per day, and women should not consume more than one per day.
Limit stress. Manage any anxiety by incorporating healthy coping mechanisms, meditation, and/or by seeking professional therapy.
How to Help Seniors Navigate Heart Disease
Heart disease can affect anyone at virtually any age, but those 65 years and older are more susceptible to this disease and more likely to experience severe symptoms. So how can medical professionals help seniors prevent or navigate this disease?
Start by educating them about this medical condition. Most patients, and their caregivers, want to know everything they can about the diagnosis and how to manage it. The next time you speak with someone diagnosed with heart disease, try the following tips:
- Thoroughly explain the heart disease diagnosis. Any amount of uncertainty can be overwhelming and could lead to unfulfilled management.
- Introduce practical or doable management plans. Explain, in detail, actions they can perform daily to improve their well-being and keep their medical condition in control.
- Provide different methods of communication or explanation. Some people can’t comprehend complex information through shared dialogue, but they may be able to do so through drawings or videos. You should also refer them to websites or support groups so they can learn about heart disease on their own time.
- Welcome questions and open up a dialogue. Remember, some patients may not feel comfortable asking questions or won’t know what to ask in the moment; be sure to provide the name and contact information of someone they can speak to if they have questions later on.
- Encourage note-taking. Offer a pad and pencil so your patient or their caregiver can record any given information for later reference.
- Summarize the conversation. Revisit critical points about their diagnosis and management plan at the end of your discussion. Ensure the patient and the caregiver understand what was said by asking them to repeat the main points in their own words.
- Be a motivator. Praise your patient for any favorable health characteristics (e.g., healthy weight, good cognitive skills, etc.) and provide positive reinforcement for their new lifestyle changes.
- Check-in. At each visit, connect with your patient and answer any questions or clarify any misunderstandings.
Using these simple yet effective communication techniques will ensure smooth navigation of this chronic disease and create a sense of trust between you and your patient.
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