February is American Heart Month: Physicians discuss heart health strategies at NFCH seminar

Two physicians shared messages at a seminar Monday that they hope guests will take to heart as February is American Heart Month – a time to focus on cardiovascular health. 

Family physician Dr. Kevin Hornsby and cardiologist Dr. Cristian Del Carpio talked about prevention and treatment for cardiovascular disease at Northwest Florida Community Hospital’s “Habits for Heart Healthy Living in 2023†seminar. As guests enjoyed a free heart healthy lunch of salad, grilled chicken, grilled shrimp and strawberry shortcake, Hornsby and Del Carpio shared strategies to thwart heart disease.

“It’s quite an amazing muscle actually,†Hornsby said of the human heart. “There are interesting things that are anecdotal. For example, the typical female heart beats a little faster than the male heart.â€

Family physician Dr. Kevin Hornsby discussed how hard the human heart works during a lifetime. [JENNIFER RICH | THE NEWS AND ADVERTISER]
Hornsby said some studies have shown that in couples who lived together for a long time, their heart rates tend to synchronize. He said that heart rates can adjust to music and that the heart beats about 100,000 times per day. 

“Before you die, 2.5 billion heart beats will come from your heart,†Hornsby said. “You’ll pump enough blood in your lifetime to fill three tanker trucks full.â€

For the amount of work this life-sustaining fist-sized organ puts in over the human lifespan, heart disease remains the biggest killer in America. As of 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that heart disease claims 696,962 lives annually. Cancer follows closely behind claiming 602,350 lives per year. While many factors contribute to one’s propensity to develop cardiovascular problems, the fact remains that heart disease is largely a lifestyle disease. 

“Here’s the problem – and it’s a big problem particularly in the South,†Hornsby said. “We’ve got some habits. In this country, we’ve got problems that are controllable and that we can do something about for the most part that lead to heart disease being the number one killer of Americans still to this day.â€

Hornsby said that while people cannot control family history, other factors like smoking, obesity, dietary choices and physical activity are factors anyone can change. These are reasons Hornsby said that for over 25 years he has seen patients die in the emergency room before he can call a cardiologist to intervene.

He continued to say that brain cells begin to die within 60 seconds of oxygen deprivation if the heart stops beating. After three minutes, a serious brain injury has occurred. Seconds and minutes become precious during a cardiovascular event as irreversible damage happens to the body. 

Hornsby said much of his practice is treating elevated blood pressure and cholesterol in patients with obesity and diabetes. In addition to a heart healthy diet, he preaches strategies such as cutting out smoking, avoiding cortisol-inducing stress, walking enough steps each day, getting adequate sleep – and frequent sexual activity for those healthy enough to endure it.

“Have sex. People that have sex more than twice a week, sexual activity helps decrease the risk of a cardiac event and decreases cortisol levels,†Hornsby said. 

Hornsby also champions reducing carbohydrates and increasing quality protein – more fish and poultry, less pork and red meat – in their diets. He added that he is a fan of the traditional Okinawa diet which is largely a plant-based diet with soy and very small amounts of rice, noodles, pork and seafood. That diet is one of the staple reasons the tiny Japanese island of Okinawa has one of the highest concentrations of centenarians on the planet. 

“The big picture thing that I hope to do is add as many years as I can to your life – with quality,†Hornsby said. 

After Hornsby talked heart disease prevention, Del Carpio took the podium to discuss top treatments for cardiovascular conditions. 

One of the most important things Del Carpio said people can do is learn to recognize cardiac chest pain. 

“The pain that’s usually cardiac will be the pressure type or burning type,†Del Carpio said. “Those are the most common types of (cardiac) pain.â€

Dr. Cristian Del Carpio gave seminar guests a lesson in how a heart attack occurs from plaque buildup in the arteries. [JENNIFER RICH | THE NEWS AND ADVERTISER]
While heartburn and indigestion, for instance, can cause discomfort that feels similar to a cardiac episode, cardiac chest pain tends to have specific characteristics.

According to Del Carpio, usual cardiac pain radiates to the inner aspect of the left arm, the jaw and the back. Less often, cardiac pain radiates to the right arm, abdomen and other areas. Cardiac chest pain tends to last 15 to 30 minutes and worsens with physical exertion or emotional stress. Pain may not improve with acute cardiac events. Shortness of breath, nausea, cold sweat and lightheadedness are other signs. Men and women may present cardiac pain differently.

“If you have had a heart attack in the past, you have to remember your symptoms because nobody is the same,†Del Carpio said.

Del Carpio showed guests a video illustrating how a heart attack occurs when arteries become gradually blocked by plaque buildup or suddenly when a piece of plaque breaks off and clogs a smaller arterial opening. 

Del Carpio discussed medications used to treat elevated cholesterol and high blood pressure in conjunction with other lifestyle modifications. At the end of the presentation, guests asked Del Carpio more specific questions. One question was how one can tell the difference between simple anxiety and cardiac issues.

“You have to evaluate if the symptoms happened while the patient was exercising or if there was some stressor going on at the same time,†Del Carpio said. “You cannot say that chest pain is just related to anxiety from the get-go.â€

Del Carpio said diagnosis is made by a process of exclusion in which the event is first treated as if it could be cardiac in nature before writing off symptoms to anxiety.  

“We have to err on the side of caution always,†Del Carpio said.