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Saturday, July 24, 2021

February honors heart health, brings awareness to nation’s leading cause of death

Three heart scientists speak on importance of this month

As February comes to a close, so does American Heart Month, which spans the entirety of February, giving doctors, friends and families the perfect opportunity to continue or start the conversation of heart health and what it entails. President Lyndon B. Johnson first proclaimed the designation of the month in 1964, inspired by his personal experience with heart disease. Since then, every president has declared February as Heart Month each year to bring awareness to the nation’s leading cause of death and a major public health issue in the U.S.

Heart disease is a catch-all phrase for a mix of conditions that can affect the heart’s structure and function. Someone dies every 37 seconds in the U.S. from heart disease, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Often heart disease can be “silent” with little to no symptoms, which can result in someone not being diagnosed until they experience clearer symptoms like a heart attack, heart failure or an arrhythmia. These symptoms are far more severe, highlighting the importance of knowing your risk factors. 

“It is my hope that everyone, regardless of age, will take time in February to learn their risk factors and talk with family members about if and how heart disease has affected them,” wrote Javier Lopez, a cardiologist, via email.

The main factors to monitor are blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and weight, along with eating and physical activity habits. Maintaining healthy levels of all of these factors is vital in preventing the development of heart disease. If people start analyzing their own lifestyle habits and speaking with their doctors about their risk of heart disease, earlier prevention can occur. Understanding your own risk for heart disease is crucial to improving your heart health, and is an important first step to addressing this illness. 

“I also hope everyone discusses their risk factors with their doctors, who are their partners in monitoring and reducing their risks of heart disease,” Lopez said. “Those conversations can truly promote long and healthy living without chronic diseases.”

  Additionally, advances in medicine and diagnostic methods have improved cardiologists’ ability to detect and treat heart disease. At one point, the best treatment method was surgery. Now, there are many other treatment options which can be catered to each patient’s specific needs. Improvements in medications that prevent hypertension and high cholesterol are reducing symptoms and decreasing the risk of heart attacks or strokes. 

Basic science research that studies the functions and structure of the heart has tremendously increased the understanding of heart disease. Luis Fernando Santana, a professor and chair of the Department of Physiology and Membrane Biology, is studying calcium channels in the cells of heart arteries. The amount of calcium that passes through the calcium channels can affect the constricting of the arteries. When arteries are constricting more often, hypertension may be increased, which results in high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease. 

Santana’s research focuses on a very basic mechanism of the heart and he has discovered that there are key differences in how the calcium channels function in men and women. By better understanding these differences, medicine can be catered to men and women. 

“We want to learn about general biological concepts by studying male and female and by the process provide better treatment,” Santana said. “We learn something very fundamental but then can apply that to medicine.”

Scott Simon, a professor of biomedical engineering, strives to understand the early stages of atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque in the arteries. The Scott Lab conducts research on the way lipids in the bloodstream enhance inflammation and has found that high levels of lipids trigger an inflammatory response, which sends out innate immune cells to repair damage. The lab wants to know the way monocytes, a type of innate immune cell, effect plaque buildup in the arteries and, in turn, increase the chance of atherosclerosis. Simon hopes to ultimately develop more effective medicine. 

“It would be great to develop therapeutics,” Simon said. “We try to understand things at the most basic molecular level and through using the mechanism we have learned we want to design better drugs.”

Santana and Simon’s research is helping advance medicine and the tools available to doctors. It is especially important to have basic science research focused on better understanding the differences in sexes as that will allow for more effective treatment methods, according to Santana. 

The deaths due to heart disease are declining, but Lopez, Santana and Simon all agree that increasing awareness is vital to reducing heart disease. Only one month is dedicated to this issue, but it is important to take what is learned in this month and continue the conversation throughout the whole year. 

“Awareness of where you are with your own risk factors is a prerequisite to mapping your personal goals for maintaining or improving your heart health,” Lopez said.

Written by: Alma Meckler-Pacheco — science@theaggie.org 

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