When it comes to health matters, what you don’t know definitely can hurt you – and it turns out that plenty of people are missing basic information.
A recent WebMD survey found that many adult Americans know astonishingly little about their own health. For example, 39 percent were flummoxed when asked if they knew their blood type. Only about one-third said they know a lot about their family’s health history, and a quarter said they know little or none of it.
That’s concerning because the more that people know about their personal health and the potential risks they face, the quicker they can take steps to mitigate those risks, said Dr. Jennifer Mieres, co-author with Dr. Stacey Rosen of “Heart Smarter for Women: Six Weeks to a Healthier Heart.”
As just one example: heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the U.S.
“Even though a family history of heart disease significantly increases your risk, knowing about it can make all the difference in your own health,” said Mieres, who is a professor of cardiology at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. “Once you are aware that you may be at high risk, you have the information that will allow you to make changes.”
She suggests anyone who doesn’t know their family health history should start trying to find it out by talking with relatives who may have more information about the subject.
“Being able to discuss your family medical history accurately with your doctor is an excellent first step to early identification, proper screening and treatment for you,” Mieres said.
One risk factor can lead to another
Family history and genetics are risk factors you can’t change. But there are plenty of risk factors – such as stress, lack of sleep, physical inactivity and cigarette smoking, among others – that you can modify, said Rosen, a practicing cardiologist and senior vice president for Northwell Health’s Katz Institute for Women’s Health.
“Risk factors tend to ‘snowball’ and worsen each other’s effects, and sometimes, having one risk factor increases the likelihood that you will have another,” Rosen said. “For example, being overweight or obese raises the chances of having hypertension or prediabetes.”
Also, some risk factors are worse than others. Smoking and diabetes, just to name two, put you at far greater risk for heart disease and heart attack than other risk factors, she said. In addition, Mieres and Rosen note that women face risks that are unique to them. In some cases, those are related to pregnancy, such as gestational diabetes, a condition where pregnant women develop elevated blood sugar, and preeclampsia, a serious condition of pregnancy characterized by high blood pressure and sometimes elevated protein in the urine.
The symptoms for these two conditions often go away after delivery, but they can still have long-term repercussions. Women who have had gestational diabetes have a significantly higher risk of developing diabetes within five to 10 years after delivery and a higher lifetime risk for heart disease, Rosen said. Women who had preeclampsia during pregnancy have a four times greater risk for heart disease, she said.
The good news is that sometimes simple lifestyle changes can help improve your odds of overcoming health risks.
“For example, sustained moderate exercise can significantly decrease your chance of heart disease by positively impacting several risk factors, such as lowering blood pressure, improving cholesterol levels, and achieving a healthy weight,” Mieres said.
Take an inventory of your health
Partnering with your doctor to develop a personalized plan for identifying and modifying your risk factors is important. But one additional way that Mieres and Rosen say patients can start to take charge of their own health is to create a personal health inventory.
This inventory should include your family medical history and your personal medical history. The personal history should include surgeries, medical procedures, hospitalizations, pregnancy-related issues, allergies, medications or supplements you currently take and their dosage, reactions and side effects to those medications, your insurance numbers, your doctor’s instructions and your treatment plan.
The inventory, which should be regularly updated, can be kept in a notebook, a smartphone, an electronic tablet, a legal pad, a three-ring binder or whatever works for you, Rosen says.
“Putting all the details about your personal health in one document will be a real eye-opener,” she said. “This information will help you keep track of the things you want to discuss with your doctor and serve as a foundation to allow you and your doctor to customize an overall health plan.”
About Jennifer Mieres, M.D.
Dr. Jennifer Mieres, co-author of “Heart Smarter for Women: Six Weeks to a Healthier” Heart (www.heartsmarterbook.com), is a professor of cardiology and associate dean of faculty affairs at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. She also is a senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Northwell Health. Mieres is a leading advocate for patient-centered healthcare and medical education reform, and has authored or coauthored over 65 scientific publications.
About Stacey Rosen, M.D.
Dr. Stacey Rosen, co-author of “Heart Smarter for Women: Six Weeks to a Healthier Heart” (www.heartsmarterbook.com), is a practicing cardiologist and senior vice president for Northwell Health’s Katz Institute for Women’s Health, which focuses on the elimination of healthcare disparities through comprehensive clinical programs, gender-based research, community partnerships, and education. Rosen also is a professor of cardiology at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, and is a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement.