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Matters of the heart: Medication, awareness helping battle against cardiac disease

POSTED: February 9, 2009 12:15 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Dr. Gary Minkiewicz, right, is joined by nuclear medicine technologist Dawn Gibson while reading cardiac PET images at the Northeast Georgia Heart Center. Positron emission tomography, PET, is a nuclear medicine imaging technique that produces a three-dimensional image of functional processes in the body.

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  • Dr. Gary Minkiewicz talks about improvements in cardiac care.

February is Heart Health Month, and there’s some good news to report: It appears that Americans’ hearts may actually be getting healthier.

A 15-year study, to be published this month in the journal Circulation, found that while the rate of heart attacks in the United States is relatively unchanged, when someone does have an attack it tends to be less severe.

Fewer patients are having the type of massive coronary that causes widespread tissue damage and kills almost immediately.

Even before this study came out, other researchers had noted that real progress is being made in battling heart disease.

"The goal of the American Heart Association in 1998 was to reduce death and disability by 25 percent by 2010. We’ve already achieved that goal," said Kasey Dillard, spokeswoman for the Heart Association in Hall County.

She attributes the improvement to a number of factors.

"There are new procedures with better outcomes, and new medications for controlling high blood pressure and cholesterol," she said. "There’s also better education and awareness. Americans know the signs (of a possible heart attack) to look for."

Dr. Gary Minkiewicz, a cardiologist with Northeast Georgia Heart Center, said more patients are trying to get treatment before their disease becomes too advanced.

"People know they need to seek help for their symptoms before they actually have a heart attack," he said.

Ideally, patients would not become so sick that they need the services of a cardiologist.

"I think a lot of progress has been made in controlling risk factors," said Minkiewicz. "Primary care physicians are more aggressive in treating cholesterol and high blood pressure."

However, the economic downturn might reverse some of that progress. People who lose their jobs and health insurance typically don’t get preventive care. They may try to ignore early warning signs of heart disease, such as shortness of breath or chest discomfort during exertion.

"Every doctor in the United States is worrying about that right now," said Minkiewicz.

Patients who do have access to health care can usually be diagnosed quickly and accurately with a variety of imaging tests. Among the newest is the PET, positron emission tomography, scan.

Northeast Georgia Heart Center began using a PET scanner just last week. It looks similar to a regular CT scanner, but where a CT takes still images, the PET scanner uses radioactive tracers to measure the flow of energy through the body.

Gainesville’s hospital, Northeast Georgia Medical Center, has a PET scanner that is used mainly to look for malignant tumors. Until recently, the technique wasn’t being used locally to diagnose heart problems.

"Diseased arteries have less blood flow, so they pick up less radioactive tracer (on a scan)," said Minkiewicz. "We can sometimes avoid doing a more invasive test, such as cardiac catheterization, by doing the PET scan first."

But even when heart disease isn’t detected until after a heart attack occurs, the odds of survival are still favorable, as long as the patient reaches a hospital promptly.

"If you think you’re having a heart attack, you need to get to the emergency room as quickly as possible, preferably in an ambulance," said Minkiewicz. "Don’t try to drive yourself."

Every minute of delay increases the risk that heart muscle will die.

"The heart has to be deprived of blood flow for several hours before there’s permanent and irreversible damage," said Minkiewicz. "If blood flow can be restored within two hours, often the effects of a heart attack can be aborted."

Through procedures such as emergency angioplasty, doctors are often able to open clogged arteries and revive oxygen-starved heart muscle.

But there are still too many people who don’t receive these life-saving techniques in time. Even though the average heart attack is less severe now than in past decades, heart disease is still the No. 1 killer in the United States.

That’s why the local chapter of the American Heart Association will hold its 13th annual Hall County Heart Ball on Feb. 28 at the Chattahoochee Country Club.

Dillard said the black-tie event raises money for prevention and education programs. And it doesn’t all go to the national organization. "About 75 cents of every dollar raised in Hall stays in Hall," she said.

With a "groovy" 1970s theme this year, the event begins with a cocktail reception at 6:30 p.m., followed by heavy hors d’oeuvres, dancing, and live and silent auctions. Tickets are $250 per person.

Dillard said last year’s Heart Ball raised about $50,000. "This year, we’ll have a special appeal to support research on heart disease in children, which hasn’t gotten as much attention as it should," she said.



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