Ascension Michigan Heart Report: What you need to know about heart health

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Don’t just guess about the health of your heart.  It’s easy to get screened and affordable too.

Many heart and vascular problems are caused by the build-up of plaque in the arteries that carry blood to the brain, abdominal organs, arms and legs. That condition is known as atherosclerosis or arteriosclerosis, which can lead to heart attack, stroke and other serious problems.

Although early diagnosis is the key to helping prevent the consequences of vascular disease, patients frequently show no signs or symptoms. For many the first sign of a problem is a major vascular event, such as heart attack, stroke or ruptured aneurysm.

The heart scan is a relatively quick and easy, non-invasive test - and one of the most effective tests to detect heart disease. The heart scan uses cardiac computed tomography (CT) to scan your heart and the surrounding area to look for calcium buildup within the walls of your coronary arteries. The presence of any calcium buildup is used to calculate a calcium score that, when combined with other health information, helps to determine your risk of coronary artery disease.  A calcium score is given to you and your doctor.

The heart scan is offered at Ascension St. John Hospital in Grosse Pointe, Ascension Providence Hospital, Southfield and Novi campuses, Ascension Macomb-Oakland Hospital, Warren and Madison Heights campuses. Appointments may be scheduled by calling 866-501-DOCS (3627).


An abnormal heart rhythm, also known as an "arrhythmia," is any change from the normal sequences of the heart's electrical impulses. The electrical impulses may cause the heart to beat too fast, too slowly, or erratically. When the heart doesn't beat properly, it can't pump blood effectively, which can lead to damage in the lungs, brain, and all other organs.

Some arrhythmias are so brief (for example, a temporary pause or premature beat) that the overall heart rate or rhythm isn't greatly affected. But if arrhythmias last longer, they may cause the heart rate to be too slow or too fast or the heart rhythm to be erratic – so the heart pumps less effectively.

  • A fast heart rate (in adults, more than 100 beats per minute) is called tachycardia.
  • A slow heart rate (less than 60 beats per minute) is referred to as bradycardia.

What is atrial fibrillation?

Normally, the heart pumps in a well-timed fashion. The two upper chambers (atria) contract first followed by the two lower chambers (ventricles). This coordinated pumping is powered by the heart's own electrical system and efficiently pumps blood out to the body and back. In atrial fibrillation (AF), a type of arrhythmia, the electrical signals fire rapidly and chaotically. This causes the atria to quiver instead of contracting normally. Many of the signals also reach the ventricles, causing them to contract irregularly too. This results in a fast and irregular heart rhythm.

Over time, this can weaken the heart and lead to heart failure. Plus, when the atria do not contract effectively, the blood may pool in the heart. This increases the risk that a blood clot may form and travel to the brain causing a stroke. People with AF are 5 to 7 times more likely to have a stroke than people who do not have AF.  AF is more common in people who are over 65 and is seen more often in men than women.

Ascension in southeast Michigan offers high quality, expert treatment for Atrial Fibrillation.  We have physicians at a wide variety of locations across southeast Michigan to serve you.  To find a high quality Ascension heart doctor who treats Atrial Fibrillation, please call 866-501-DOCS (3627).


What is blood pressure?

Blood pressure is the force of the blood pushing against the artery walls. The force is generated with each heartbeat as blood is pumped from the heart into the blood vessels. The size and elasticity of the artery walls also affect blood pressure. Each time the heart beats (contracts and relaxes), pressure is created inside the arteries.

The pressure is greatest when blood is pumped out of the heart into the arteries. When the heart relaxes between beats (blood is not moving out of the heart), the pressure falls in the arteries.

Two numbers are recorded when measuring blood pressure.

  • The top number, or systolic pressure, refers to the pressure inside the artery when the heart contracts and pumps blood through the body.
  • The bottom number, or diastolic pressure, refers to the pressure inside the artery when the heart is at rest and is filling with blood.

Blood pressure is measured with a blood pressure cuff and. You can also take your own blood pressure with an electronic blood pressure monitor.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, directly increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. With high blood pressure, the arteries may have an increased resistance against the flow of blood, causing the heart to pump harder to circulate the blood. Usually, high blood pressure has no signs or symptoms. However, you can know if your blood pressure is high by having it checked regularly by your health care provider.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that healthy lifestyle changes can help prevent high blood pressure from developing. Healthy lifestyle changes include choosing a heart-healthy eating patterns such as the DASH eating plan, being physically active, aiming for a healthy weight, quitting smoking, and managing stress.

What are the risk factors for high blood pressure?

  • Nearly one-third of all Americans have high blood pressure, but it is particularly prevalent in:
  • People who have diabetes, gout, or kidney disease
  • African Americans (particularly those who live in the southeastern United States)
  • People in their early to middle adult years; men in this age group have higher blood pressure more often than women in this age group
  • People in their middle to later adult years; women in this age group have higher blood pressure more often than men in this age group (more women have high blood pressure after menopause than men of the same age)
  • Middle-aged and elderly people; more than half of all Americans age 60 and older have high blood pressure
  • People with a family history of high blood pressure
  • Obese people
  • Heavy drinkers of alcohol
  • Women who are taking oral contraceptives

How does blood pressure increase?

The following conditions contribute to high blood pressure:

  • Being overweight
  • Excessive sodium intake
  • A lack of exercise and physical activity
  • How is high blood pressure controlled?
  • High blood pressure can be controlled by:
  • Taking prescribed medications exactly as ordered by your health care provider
  • Choosing foods that are low in sodium (salt)
  • Choosing foods low in calories and fat
  • Choosing foods high in fiber
  • Maintaining a healthy weight, or losing weight if overweight
  • Limiting serving sizes
  • Increasing physical activity
  • Reducing or omitting alcoholic beverages

Sometimes daily medication is needed to control high blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, have your blood pressure checked routinely and see your doctor to monitor the condition.

To find an Ascension heart doctor in southeast Michigan who treats high blood pressure, please call 866-501-DOCS (3627).

Ascension is nationally recognized as a leader in heart and vascular care. Led by some of the country's most respected and skilled cardiologists, cardiac surgeons, vascular surgeons, nurses and researchers. 


Some heart attacks are sudden and intense — the "movie heart attack," where no one doubts what's happening. But most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Often people affected aren't sure what's wrong and wait too long before getting help. Here are signs that can mean a heart attack is happening:

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

As with men, women's most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain. Learn about the warning signs of heart attack in women.

Learn the signs, but remember this: Even if you're not sure it's a heart attack, have it checked out. Minutes matter! Fast action can save lives — maybe your own. Don't wait - call 9-1-1 or your emergency response number.

Calling 9-1-1 is almost always the fastest way to get lifesaving treatment. Emergency medical services (EMS) staff can begin treatment when they arrive — up to an hour sooner than if someone gets to the hospital by car. EMS staff are also trained to revive someone whose heart has stopped. Patients with chest pain who arrive by ambulance usually receive faster treatment at the hospital, too. It is best to call EMS for rapid transport to the emergency room.

Why don’t people act fast enough?

Many people having a heart attack wait more than two hours before getting help. Some people feel it would be embarrassing to have a “false alarm.” Others are so afraid of having a heart attack that they tell themselves they aren’t having one. These feelings are easy to understand, but they’re also very dangerous.

If you or someone close to you shows signs of a heart attack, call 9-1-1 and get help right away!

How can I help to avoid a heart attack?

  • Don’t smoke, and avoid second-hand smoke.
  • Treat high blood pressure if you have it.
  • Eat foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and salt.
  • Be physically active.
  • Keep your weight under control.
  • Get regular medical check-ups.
  • Take medicine as prescribed.
  • Control your blood sugar if you have diabetes.


Who is at risk for heart valve disease?

Although the population of people affected by heart valve disease is considerably smaller than the number of people who have the more common conditions, like high blood pressure and coronary artery disease, valvular disease has become an increasing problem in recent years due to the increase in life expectancy.

Valve disease and age

Heart valve disease is more common among older people. Today, thanks to improved quality of medical care and increased attention on prevention, people are living longer. As a result, heart valve disease has become a more common problem. As we age, our heart valves can become lined with calcium deposits that cause the valve flaps to thicken and become stiffer.

Valve disease and related health conditions

People who have had rheumatic fever or a case of infective endocarditis are at greater risk for heart valve problems. Heart problems like a heart attack, heart failure, arrhythmia, or previous heart valve conditions from birth (called congenital heart defects) can also increase the likelihood for developing valve problems.

Valve disease and health risks

Many people live long and healthy lives and never realize they have a mild valve problem.  However, valve disease can seriously increase a persons’ risk for sudden death or cause rapid development of problems in and around the heart that can become fatal without treatment.

People who have been diagnosed with a heart murmur, a defect like a bicuspid aortic valve, mitral valve prolapse or a mild form of valve disease should maintain regular check-ins with a Ascension  heart doctor and should be aware of possible symptoms should they start or become worse.

Aging people should also be aware of changes that may come on very gradually. Not all declines in energy or stamina are related to “the normal problems of getting older.” When the heart fails to pump enough oxygen-rich blood to the body, symptoms may appear. Problems like fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain or discomfort and lightheadedness can indicate treatable problems related to the heart. 

  • Do you notice that routine activities like walking faster or taking the stairs have become more difficult?
  • Have you stopped doing enjoyable activities that you used to do with relative ease?

Be sure to take notes on any changes like these and describe them to your doctor.

Ascension heart doctors in southeast Michigan are expert heart doctors who treat a wide variety of heart valve problems. To find a heart doctor that is right for you or your family, please call 866-501-DOCS (3627).


Why does peripheral artery disease matter?

Peripheral artery disease happens when fatty deposits build up in arteries outside the heart, usually the arteries supplying fresh oxygen and blood to the arms, legs and feet.

Is PAD dangerous or life threatening?

Yes, PAD is dangerous because these blockages can restrict circulation to the limbs, organs and brain. Without adequate blood flow, vital organs, legs, arms and feet, and your brain, suffer damage. Left untreated, the tissue can die or harbor infection such as gangrene.

Does PAD cause additional health problems?

PAD may be the first warning sign of atherosclerosis – chronic fatty deposit build-ups – throughout your arteries. The whole circulatory system, including your heart and brain, are at risk when arteries are blocked and narrowed. Fatty deposits also increase the risk for vascular inflammation and blood clots that can block the blood supply and cause tissue death.

PAD is potentially a life-threatening condition that can be managed or even reversed with proper care.

PAD Symptoms:

The most common symptom of peripheral artery disease (PAD) in the lower extremities is a painful muscle cramping in the hips, thighs or calves when walking, climbing stairs or exercising.

The pain of PAD often goes away when you stop exercising, although this may take a few minutes. Working muscles need more blood flow (View an animation of blood flow). Resting muscles can get by with less.

If there's a blood-flow blockage due to plaque buildup, the muscles won't get enough blood during exercise to meet the needs. The "crampy" pain (called "intermittent claudication"), when caused by PAD, is the muscles' way of warning the body that it isn't receiving enough blood during exercise to meet the increased demand.

Many people with PAD have no symptoms or mistake their symptoms for something else. Symptoms of severe PAD include:

  • Leg pain that does not go away when you stop exercising
  • Foot or toe wounds that won't heal or heal very slowly
  • Gangrene
  • A marked decrease in the temperature of your lower leg or foot particularly compared to the other leg or to the rest of your body
  • Understanding leg pain

Many people dismiss leg pain as a normal sign of aging. You may think it's arthritis, sciatica or just "stiffness" from getting older. For an accurate diagnosis, consider the source of your pain. PAD leg pain occurs in the muscles, not the joints.

Those with diabetes might confuse PAD pain with a neuropathy, a common diabetic symptom that is a burning or painful discomfort of the feet or thighs.


Ischemia is an insufficient blood supply to a part of the body due to blockage. Critical Limb Ischemia is a severe blockage in the arteries of the lower extremities. It is a serious form of peripheral arterial disease (PAD). When an insufficient blood supply takes place in the lower extremities, it can lead to Critical Limb Ischemia or CLI.

CLI is a serious condition that is often accompanied by pain in the calves or thighs. It must be treated quickly in order to re-establish the blood supply. If left untreated, CLI can lead to tissue death and limb loss. At the Ascension Wound and Amputation Prevention Centers in southeast Michigan we regularly save limbs that would otherwise have been lost due to this serious disease.

Who is at Risk?

CLI can be found in patients with coronary artery disease and those with cardiovascular disease risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, and high cholesterol. The prevalence of CLI increases with age. It should also be noted that up to 50% of patients report no symptoms despite the presence of severe blockages in one or both of their limbs.

Due to the high risk for limb loss, it is important that CLI patients receive care from experienced physicians that offer advanced and effective treatments.

Ascension Wound and Amputation Prevention Centers in southeast Michigan

If you are a patient and have been told that you may require an amputation; please call 866-501-DOCS (3627) to schedule an appointment with an Ascension Wound and Amputation Prevention Centers physician.

Ascension Michigan Heart Report

The Ascension Michigan Heart Report provides you vital information about a very important topic – your heart.  Each week our heart care experts provide important information about all aspects of the heart including diseases and conditions you should know about, symptoms to keep in mind, useful information about risk factors and prevention strategies; and details about the leading edge heart treatments you’ll find at Ascension Michigan.

The goal of the series is to increase your knowledge about a wide variety of heart related topics, and to keep heart health top-of-mind in the community, because heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases are still the #1 cause of death worldwide.

To make an appointment with an Ascension heart doctor in southeast Michigan that is right for you or your family, please call us at 866-501-DOCS (3627).  You can also find us on the web at