Dr. Rory FarnanHeart disease is the leading cause of death among both men and women in the United States. That’s an unfortunate reality that demands our attention. Below is a Q&A with Dr. Rory Farnan, a cardiologist at Essentia Health who answers some of the most pressing questions surrounding heart disease.

What are the most common risk factors for heart disease?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 697,000 people in the U.S. died from heart disease in 2020, the most recent year for which data was available. That’s a sobering number. And it highlights the importance of understanding key risk factors so you can be proactive about your health. These risk factors include things like:

  • Diabetes, pre-diabetes or insulin resistance.
  • High cholesterol and/or elevated triglyceride levels.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Excess body weight.
  • Family history of premature heart attack or stroke.
  • Obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Tobacco use and smoking.

What should someone do if they think they’re at risk for heart disease?

Like other situations in which you’re concerned or have questions about your health, reach out to your primary care provider and get a conversation started. Your provider can assess the situation and determine the appropriate next steps, such as whether or not you should see a specialist.

There are a number of ways to improve heart health. What are some of the best?

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. Instead, lifestyle changes can help you control a heart condition or reduce your risk of developing one. Even small steps can make a big difference. You’re likely familiar with some of the strategies. Here are the most common:

  • Eat a balanced diet. Include fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean sources of protein like beans, fish and nuts. Avoid foods that are fried, packaged or high in salt or sugar.
  • Be active. Exercise 20 to 30 minutes most days. Working out at an Essentia Health fitness center or elsewhere can strengthen your heart and manage your weight.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Losing weight if you’re overweight can help prevent many health problems. Working with a weight-management expert can help.
  • Get quality sleep. Aim for eight hours a night. Talk to a sleep specialist for more information.
  • Quit smoking or using tobacco and avoid secondhand smoke. Quitting tobacco benefits your overall health.
  • Manage stress. Hobbies, spending time with loved ones, exercise and mindfulness can help.
  • Manage health conditions. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, pre-diabetes and metabolic syndrome are linked to an increased risk of heart trouble. See your primary care provider regularly to prevent and manage health problems.

Why are cardio workouts so vital to improving and maintaining good heart health? Are there specific workouts that you recommend to your patients?

This is a great question, and it’s important to note that everybody is different; put another way, “every body” is different. What that means is the best answer to this question will differ from person to person. Some of the most popular and effective forms of exercise include brisk walking, running, swimming, biking, hiking, jumping rope, individual sports like tennis or golf, etc. What do you enjoy doing? And what’s a safe activity for you to pursue? Those considerations will guide your cardio workouts. I would recommend a conversation with your primary care provider to determine what’s right — and safest — for you.

Essentia Health recently unveiled a cardiometabolic clinic, which is a specialized program developed to help reduce cardiometabolic risk, maintain a healthier lifestyle, and improve risk factors to prevent heart and vascular disease. Why was this important and how does it benefit patients?

Our cardiometabolic clinic is a great way to get customized care. As I noted earlier, no two people are the same, and thus no two diagnoses of heart disease are the same. Essentia’s cardiometabolic team works with each patient to identify their health issues and risk factors. Then, we create a tailored treatment plan that fits individual lifestyle goals.

Being diagnosed with heart disease is scary, but it’s not a death sentence. And there are steps that people can take to improve their outlook. What do you tell your patients who are diagnosed with heart disease?

Being diagnosed with heart disease can come as a shock to a lot of people, but there can also be positive outcomes that result from this diagnosis. This diagnosis can provide us with an opportunity to determine our priorities in life and evaluate whether we have been making choices in line with those priorities. The great news is that as cardiologists we have several tools in our toolbox to potentially help reverse or stabilize these conditions. We are grateful for the opportunity to work with our patients to achieve their health care goals. In the end, what people initially see as something terrible can be somewhat of a gift if we use it as a motivator for healthy change and choose to see it that way.


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