February is American Heart Month—ever since President Lyndon Johnson issued the first proclamation in 1964. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, and it has been for decades. This month is a good time to take stock in your personal health and learn more about practices that improve the health of our hearts.
Valley residents and visitors who are diagnosed with some form of heart disease, who suffer a heart attack, or experience a cardiac event, are fortunate to have access to two very experienced cardiologists at Aspen Valley Hospital.
Dr. Gordon Gerson is trained in interventional cardiology and has been practicing locally for more than 20 years. Dr. Joseph Schuller specializes in electrophysiology and began practicing at AVH two years ago, after spending 15 years practicing at University of Colorado Health, including eight as a faculty member.
“Dr. Gerson is an interventional cardiologist, and I am an electrophysiologist, and our skill sets complement each other well,” explains Dr. Schuller.
“Very few, if any, small towns will offer this extent of training and experience amongst their cardiology providers,” adds Dr. Gerson.
The cardiology department at AVH has expanded both its services and reach over the last couple of years, since Dr. Schuller joined the Hospital. “We have been able to perform more procedures in the valley, which is popular with patients, and expanded our clinic to see patients in Aspen, Basalt and Glenwood Springs,” he says.
With two cardiologists on staff, there is more capacity to care for patients. That’s been especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has added another layer of demand for cardiology. That includes working with athletes who are returning to their sports after becoming ill with COVID, and visiting with the “worried well” who are experiencing anxiety about the virus and experiencing symptoms similar to a heart attack.
“When you have anxiety, one of the ways it can present itself is chest pains, palpitations and shortness of breath,” Dr. Gerson says.
AVH and its cardiologists have done their best to keep their doors open throughout the pandemic. “Speaking with a patient is very important and certainly that can happen over the phone, but examining them is extremely important, too,” says Dr. Gerson.
In addition to in-person visits, the cardiologists offer telemedicine visits when appropriate, and have delayed some elective tests and procedures when it is safe to do so. The department has also set up a remote clinic to serve patients with pacemakers and defibrillators.
“We all take the typical COVID precautions but otherwise we have tried to maintain our usual standards of care. Cardiac disease continues despite the pandemic,” says Dr. Schuller.
Lifestyle choices can go a long way toward reducing our chances for heart disease. Eating well, exercising properly, not smoking, working to prevent the onset of diabetes are all important in avoiding a heart attack. Equally important is the role of doctors in helping people understand their risk factors and coming up with a plan to reduce them.
“Getting checked out even if you live the perfect lifestyle is extremely important,” says Dr. Gerson. “You can eat a healthy diet, you can exercise the exact right amount—there can be too little exercise and too much—but you still might have silent heart issues lurking.”
People can make an appointment at AVH with the cardiology department or visit their primary care physician to undergo the appropriate preventative screening. At a minimum, Dr. Gerson recommends testing your cholesterol levels. Other common tests include a coronary calcium CT scan to look for plaque developing in the arteries, and a blood test for lipoprotein (a) which is important for people with heart disease in their family history.
“If you and your doctor find something lurking, aggressive prevention such as optimizing blood pressure or taking cholesterol-lowering medicine goes a long way to help limit your risk,” Dr. Gerson says.
Among the most important tools for lowering risk are statin drugs that reduce cholesterol levels. “You can take a person who is at significant risk of a heart attack and turn them into a person who’s at really quite low risk,” Dr. Gerson says. “But we can’t do that if people don’t see a doctor to get checked out.”
Heart attacks have a very high mortality rate when not treated promptly. They can occur anywhere at anytime, including on the hill or the trail.
People know what it’s supposed to feel like when they are skiing, running or riding a bike. It’s important to pay attention when you don’t feel like yourself. The number one complaint from people experiencing a heart attack when exercising is unusual shortness of breath. As people age, awareness of such symptoms is even more important.
“It’s one thing if you’re 30 and having an off day, it’s another if you’re 60,” Dr. Gerson says. “The appropriate action is to stop what you’re doing and seek medical care immediately rather pushing through it, which can have dire consequences.”
About American Heart Month
February marks the 56th annual American Heart Month as a way to raise awareness about heart disease and the measures we can take to lower our risks. For more information, please visit the National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute website or the American Heart Association website.