When Is the Right Time for a First Visit With a Heart Specialist?

Health Writer

The first time you meets a heart specialist (a cardiologist) is often under emergency circumstances, when chest pain, a heart attack, or other emergency symptoms warrant an immediate consultation, often in the emergency room. But there are a number of reasons you might want to schedule a first visit with a cardiologist, long before an actual emergency occurs.

Family history can be a compelling reason to see a cardiologist early on in your teen or adult life, especially if a first degree relative died prematurely due to heart disease, or one or both of your parents have some type of heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, risk factors for heart disease are strongly linked to family history. It’s important to know if your parents, siblings, or grandparents had or died from heart disease. Heart disease can be inherited.

High blood pressure (hypertension) in your teens or early adult years is another good reason to get a baseline consultation with a heart specialist. High blood pressure is a precursor to heart disease. Risk of developing high blood pressure can be inherited. Being older and being African American raises your risk. If you are sedentary, eat a high salt diet, are overweight, smoke or drink alcohol daily, you may also be at risk of high blood pressure. High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease.

A high total cholesterol, high LDL, or hypercholesterolemia is another reason to see a heart specialist for a baseline evaluation. Hyperlipidemia includes elevations in cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which can also raise your risk for heart disease. When levels of cholesterol are high, plaque can begin to deposit on the walls of your arteries (atherosclerosis) and this process can impede blood flow. A heart attack occurs when the plaque occludes a major artery and blood flow to the heart is limited. A stroke occurs when this process happens in the arteries leading to the brain. You may not be aware if you have high cholesterol levels, which is why a yearly checkup and blood work is important. Familial hypercholesterolemia is one of the most commonly inherited disorders that cause elevated cholesterol levels.

Smoking or having been a former cigarette smoker is a strong risk factor for heart disease. The chemicals in tobacco smoke harm your blood cells. Smoking limits blood flow to the heart and is linked to hypertension. It also increases heart rate and blood clotting and it damages the lining of arteries. Smoking is also a risk factor for peripheral artery disease (PAD), which is a risk factor for heart disease, a heart attack, and stroke. Current smokers and those with a history of smoking should have a baseline evaluation by a cardiologist.

Diabetes is linked to silent heart attacks and also hastens the onset of heart disease. When you have persistent elevated levels of glucose in the blood, cells can be starved for energy. Over time, those circulating levels of sugar can destroy nerves and blood vessels leading to heart disease and stroke. So if you have pre-diabetes or diabetes, you have a significantly higher risk of silent heart disease, and you should have a baseline visit with a cardiologist and decide how frequently you should be seen for follow-up visits.

A diagnosis of obesity is also associated with a heightened risk of heart disease. As body mass index (BMI) rises, so does the risk of developing coronary heart disease (CHD). CHD occurs when plaque builds up in arteries, impeding blood flow to crucial organs like the heart. Obesity is also linked to heart failure, when your heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs.

Having gum disease and having a past diagnosis of preeclampsia or gestational diabetes are all risk factors for “later on” heart disease, so do consider having an evaluation by a cardiac specialist. Gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy) can often go into remission after delivery; however, the risk of blood sugar elevations and persistent diabetes is still quite strong following childbirth. Preeclampsia, which includes having dangerously high blood pressure during pregnancy, obviously resolves after delivery, but the risk of high blood pressure can still remain. As stated earlier, high blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease.

The most obvious reason to have a first visit with a cardiologist is if you experience sharp chest pain. Cramping in your legs, swelling in the lower part of your legs, shortness of breath when you exert yourself minimally, are just some of the other warning signs of heart disease. There are other atypical presentations of heart disease, so you need to be aware of all the signs and symptoms of heart disease and seek help from your physician or a heart specialist to rule out heart disease or an impending heart event.

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