Heart Health 101 With Dr. Rajesh Maharaj

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Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Americans, but by focusing on heart-healthy habits you can reduce your risk. Board-certified cardiologist Rajesh Tota-Maharaj, MD explains common risk factors and how to increase your cardiac health.

Who’s at Risk for Heart Disease

Heart disease can happen at any age, but most people develop it in their 50s and 60s. Men tend to develop it at a younger age than women. And although it’s much less common, children can develop heart disease as well.

“Heart disease is extremely common,” says Dr. Tota-Maharaj. “Those persons at highest risk have high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus, high cholesterol, a family history of heart disease or use tobacco.

Genetics also plays a major part. If you have a family history of heart disease, this may increase your risk, especially if you have other risk factors like high cholesterol and a history of smoking. Smoking significantly increases the risk of developing clogged arteries in your heart and increases the risk of having a heart attack. Bad cholesterol, or LDL-cholesterol, increases the risk of cholesterol buildup in the arteries in your heart.Diabetes is probably the one disease that singularly increases your risk of heart disease more than any other.”

Limiting Your Risk

Prevention is key when reducing your risk of heart disease. There are some cardiac conditions that can be cured, but for most people, improving and maintaining their overall cardiac health is the best plan.

“Good heart health starts with a healthy diet, paying close attention to your blood pressure and getting regular exercise — at least 30 minutes of exercise daily,” says Dr. Tota-Maharaj. “A healthy diet means limiting fatty and fried foods, limiting sodium or table salt intake and lowering the number of calories you consume. Ideally, you should aim for a BMI of less than 25, and an LDL-cholesterol level of less than 100.

Dr. Tota-Maharaj continues, “But I don't believe in fad diets. I think dietary changes should be something you can sustain over time. Take the keto diet, for instance. It hasn’t been studied long enough to determine how it affects the heart. Most cardiologists frown on it because of the high fat content, which goes against what we presently recommend. I personally discourage my patients from it, because I don't yet know the overall long-term impact on heart health.

Moderate coffee intake, up to 3 cups a day, has been shown to be more protective against heart disease than not drinking coffee at all. Higher consumption than this does begin to increase risk, however.”

Other Considerations and Precautions


There’s no direct connection between anti-depressants and developing heart disease, though some anti-depressants can interact with cardiac medications, so you should talk to your doctor and discuss which medication is right for you.

Certain heart medications can affect libido. The same process that causes cholesterol buildup in the heart can cause it to happen in other organs, too.

While dizziness can be a side effect of blood pressure medications, there are many things that can cause this symptom, so you should see your doctor if you experience it. If you aren’t at risk for heart disease, there’s no need to be on a baby aspirin regimen. But if you have a high risk of heart disease, a baby aspirin can protect against not only having a heart attack — but a stroke as well.

Cardiac Testing for Heart Disease

No matter your age, you should get tested if you’re having symptoms of heart disease. If you’re not experiencing symptoms but are concerned for your heart health, have a conversation with your primary care doctor. If your doctor thinks that you might have a higher risk of heart disease, your doctor may request further cardiac testing.

Depending on your symptoms, common tests include an EKG, echocardiogram and stress test. In some cases, when a patient either is having a heart attack or is at an increased risk of one, a procedure called a cardiac catheterization is performed.

In some patients who are not yet having cardiac symptoms but may be at increased risk, there’s a special heart scan called a calcium score, which can help determine whether you’re starting to develop heart disease.

Warning Signs

In some cases, there are tests that can show whether you’re starting to develop heart disease — even before you’ve experienced symptoms. But it’s also important to watch out for warning signs. Chest discomfort, difficulty breathing, palpitations, dizziness or loss of consciousness can all be symptoms of a heart attack.

If you believe you’re having a heart attack or stroke, call 911 immediately. Do not attempt to drive yourself to the hospital as this puts not only your life in more danger, but also the lives of those around you.

Getting Tested for Heart Disease

If you think that you could be developing heart disease or would like more information on how to prevent it, make an appointment with your primary care provider today. You can also visit our site to find a physician, or visit our Cardiovascular Institute site or call Call833-346-6994.

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