Your doctor can be an important partner.

The first step toward heart health is becoming aware of your own personal risk for heart disease. Some risks, such as smoking cigarettes, are obvious: everyone knows whether or not they smoke. But other risk factors, such as high blood pressure or high blood cholesterol, generally don't have obvious signs or symptoms. So you'll need to gather some information to create your personal "heart profile."

A crucial step in determining your risk is to see your doctor for a thorough checkup. Your physician can be an important partner in helping you set goals for heart health. But don't wait for your physician to mention heart disease or its risk factors.

Here are some tips for establishing good, clear communication between you and your doctor:

Speak up.
Tell your doctor you want to keep your heart healthy and would like help in achieving that goal. Ask questions about your chances of developing heart disease and how you can lower your risk. Also ask for tests that will determine your personal risk factors.

Keep tabs on treatment.
If you already are being treated for heart disease or heart disease risk factors, ask your doctor to review your treatment plan with you. Ask: Is what I'm doing in line with the latest recommendations? Are my treatments working? Are my risk factors under control? If your doctor recommends a medical procedure, ask about its benefits and risks. Find out if you will need to be hospitalized and for how long, and what to expect during the recovery period.

Be open.
When your doctor asks you questions, answer as honestly and fully as you can. While certain topics may seem quite personal, discussing them openly can help your doctor find out your chances of developing heart disease. It can also help your doctor work with you to reduce your risk. If you already have heart disease, briefly describe each of your symptoms. Include when each symptom started, how often it happens, and whether it has been getting worse.

Keep it simple.
If you don't understand something your doctor says, ask for an explanation in simple language. Be especially sure you can understand how to take any medication you are given. If you are worried about understanding what the doctor says, or if you have trouble hearing, bring a friend or relative with you to your appointment. You may want to ask that person to write down the doctor's instructions for you.

Ask these ten important questions.
Here's a list of questions for your doctor whose answers will give you vital information about your heart health and what you can do to improve it. You may want to take this list with you to your doctor's office.

  1. What is my risk for heart disease?

  2. What is my blood pressure? What does it mean for men, and what do I need to do about it?

  3. What are my cholesterol numbers? (These include total cholesterol, LDL or "bad" cholesterol, HDL or "good" cholesterol, and triglycerides.) What do they mean for me, and what do I need to do about them?

  4. What are my body mass index and waist measurement? Do they indicate that I need to lose weight for my health?

  5. What is my blood sugar level, and does it mean I'm at risk for diabetes?

  6. What other screening test for heart disease do I need? How often should I return for checkups for my heart health?

  7. What can you do to help me quit smoking?

  8. How much physical activity do I need to help protect my heart?

  9. What is a heart-healthy eating plan for me? Should I see a registered dietitian or qualified nutritionist to learn more about healthy eating?

  10. How can I tell if I'm having a heart attack?

Source: The Healthy Heart Handbook for Women, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

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