Annual Care Visits: How Can My PCP Uncover Heart Conditions?

Visiting your primary care physician (PCP) for an annual exam may sometimes seem like a blasé task that’s fairly uneventful. However, these yearly visits with your doctor are crucial for several reasons—one being that a PCP can identify the early signs of heart disease before it progresses to cause obvious symptoms and becomes more difficult to treat.

You may be thinking, “I’m in pretty good shape, so my heart must be fine.” Unfortunately, heart disease can affect even young and otherwise healthy adults, and numbers appear to be on the rise. Here are some surprising statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death among men, women and most ethnic and racial groups in the United States.
  • In 2020, around 697,000 Americans died of heart disease—that’s one in every five deaths.
  • One person dies every 34 seconds from cardiovascular disease in the U.S.
  • Someone has a heart attack around every 40 seconds in the U.S.
  • One in every five heart attacks is “silent,” meaning the heart becomes damaged, but the person is unaware something is wrong.

The Basics of Heart Disease

First things first—what exactly is heart disease and why is it so common? In short, heart disease is an umbrella term for multiple cardiovascular issues, including but not limited to:

  • Heart attacks
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
  • Heart valve disease
  • Congenital (present at birth) heart defects
  • Heart infections
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Atherosclerosis

Because heart disease encompasses a wide range of problems—some being congenital and thus unavoidable—millions of people are expected to be living with this condition. Coronary artery disease alone affects about 20.1 million people ages 20 and over, according to the CDC.

How a PCP Can Detect Signs of Heart Disease

It’s actually very simple for a PCP to spot possible signs of heart disease during an annual visit. There are three standard steps that your doctor will take to evaluate your cardiovascular health, including:

Listening to Your Heartbeat

Your doctor will carefully listen to your heartbeat by placing a stethoscope on your chest. The soft pounding noise that is produced by your heart is actually related to closing heart valves, so an abnormal noise through the stethoscope can point to a heart valve issue.

Checking Your Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is the force of circulating blood against artery walls. Healthy blood pressure for most adults is less than 120 over less than 80. The top number (120) refers to systolic blood pressure, which is the pressure in the arteries when the heart squeezes, while the bottom number (80) describes artery pressure when the heart relaxes in between squeezes, or the diastolic blood pressure.

High blood pressure (also known as hypertension) that is not properly managed is a dangerous problem that can lead to heart attack, stroke and heart failure. On the other end of the spectrum, blood pressure that is too low (hypotension) may be a sign of a weak heart muscle or arrhythmia.

Evaluating Your Pulse

The rhythm, rate and force of your pulse can tell your doctor a lot about your heart health. A pulse that is irregular or unusually fast, slow, weak or forceful may be a sign of an underlying problem.

In addition to these routine tests, your doctor will likely ask you questions about your personal and family medical histories, as well as how you’re feeling and whether you’re experiencing any symptoms that concern you. He or she may also check for physical signs of heart disease, which can include bluish skin or swelling of the arms, legs or feet.

If your annual exam suggests the need for further evaluation, your doctor may order a blood test to check your cholesterol levels and screen for other possible indicators of heart disease. In some cases, an electrocardiogram (EKG) test may be recommended. This fast and simple test records the heart’s electrical signals and is used to help identify several common heart problems.

As your healthcare “home base,” your PCP can refer you to a cardiologist for more specialized heart disease testing and treatment, if clinically appropriate. He or she will communicate with your cardiologist and keep tabs on your condition to help ensure you can maintain good heart health going forward.

Heart Disease Prevention Strategies

Although heart disease can affect anyone, certain factors can significantly increase a person’s risk, including:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Smoking
  • Living a sedentary lifestyle
  • Frequently experiencing stress
  • Having a diet high in fat, cholesterol, sugar or salt

Keeping these heart disease risk factors in mind and taking steps to lower your risk is key to preventing heart disease and achieving your best overall health. Your PCP can recommend a diet and exercise plan that’s best for your specific age, health and lifestyle, in addition to helping you begin a smoking cessation program or find ways to lower or better manage your stress.

Take the Next Step

Florida Medical Clinic is a trusted place to turn for primary care services like annual care visits and health screenings. If you’d like to discuss your heart disease risk with a primary care physician—or if you’re simply due for an annual physical—we encourage you to schedule an appointment by calling (813) 780-8440 or requesting an appointment on our website.

Meet Anthony Esposito, MD

A graduate of Nova Southeastern University, Dr. Anthony Esposito provides a full spectrum of primary care services at Florida Medical Clinic’s Watergrass location. He is board certified by the American Osteopathic Board of Family Physicians and a member of the American Academy of Family Medicine and American Medical Association, among other esteemed organizations. Married to his high school sweetheart, Dr. Esposito enjoys spending time with his wife and kids and playing the occasional game of racquetball.

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