Local doctor talks about Heart Health Month
By Stephan Drew, Editor
February is American Heart Month – a time when our nation spotlights and shares awareness of the risk factors associated with heart disease and cardiac conditions. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, who had a history of heart problems, issued the first proclamation. Since then, U.S. presidents have annually declared February American Heart Month.
Heart disease continues to be the greatest health threat to Americans and is still the leading cause of death worldwide, according to the AHA’s Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics – 2021 Update. And, heart attacks and strokes are higher in the Pee Dee area of South Carolina than in most other regions of the United States. We do love our fatback, fried foods and salt.
Recently, I spoke with Dr. Mark Stellingworth, Chief of Staff at Carolina Pines Regional Medical Center in Hartsville. Dr. Stellingworth went through 4 years of Medical School at Louisiana State University (LSU) in New Orleans. He then served a residency for 3 years and as Chief Resident for 1 year before serving for 3 years in a Fellowship (which included 1 year as Chief Fellow). He has been at Carolina Pines Regional Medical Center for the past 9 years and has a wealth of knowledge to assist our community.
Dr. Stellingworth explained that the greatest contributing factor to heart damage/disease is obesity. “It predisposes you to hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and so many other problems,” he said. “Prevention and good healthy maintenance are the key,” he continued. He stated that he’s not sure if the Pee Dee area is the highest in the nation for heart disease but, “It’s definitely above the national average. Overall, we have a very high incidence of Coronary Artery Disease (CAD), Cerebrovascular Accidents (CVA or stroke) and Congestive Heart Failure” he stated. When asked if sodium is still a major factor, Stellingworth said, “Medical information is more readily available now and has helped educate many people. It’s still a big factor but, not as much as before.”
Because salt is usually hidden in the food during cooking, it is difficult to know exactly how much you’re consuming. The recommended amount of sodium is 2 grams or less per day. Dr. Stellingworth recommends cooking frozen rather than canned vegetables because canned food has so much more sodium and preservatives. He also recommends greatly decreasing (if not eliminating) fatty foods, decreasing red meat, increasing chicken and fish, as well as trying to switch to a Mediterranean Diet, which prioritizes plant-based foods, whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices. Olive oil is the main source of added fat in the Mediterranean diet.
He also suggests eating fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon (instead of meat) at least twice a week. Choose lean meat and skinless poultry. Dr. Stellingworth listed several changes anyone can make, including regular health checks, screens, and smoking cessation. “Some things are unavoidable,” he said, “but there are small things you can do to increase your health status.”
There are many types of diagnostic tests, screenings, including Computerized Tomography (CT), ElectroCardioGram (EKG), echocardiograms, event monitors and stress testing to evaluate heart rate, rhythm, etc. These tools are invaluable in determining a patient’s heart health. Dr. Stellingworth explained that cardiovascular imaging is an essential tool used daily by healthcare professionals to gauge the cardiac status and any degrees of damage which may be present.
When asked if he had seen an increase in cardiac patients since the COVID pandemic began, Dr. Stellingworth stated that the number of patients had not increased but, he had seen an increased severity in some patients. “There has been an increase in stress over the past few years and that can always aggravate any health condition,” he said. He discussed the different medications and treatments available for different heart conditions like Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) and Coronary Artery Disease (CAD). Some medications, like Beta blockers, are used with both types of conditions. Most of the medications are used to regulate heart rhythm, reduce symptoms and strengthen the heart muscle. There are also Statins, which decrease bad cholesterol in the blood stream.
But, Stellingworth reminds, a daily regimen of drugs is not the first resort. He recommends simple steps that anyone can take as a first course. “Start walking,” he said, encouraging regular, daily exercise, no matter what your mobility issues. “You don’t have to run a marathon. Just a walk to your mailbox or around in your yard will help,” Stellingworth stated. “Do something that helps you move around.” He explained that a sedentary life can cause many other problems – inflammatory disorders, muscle wasting, pneumonia, etc. “Obesity is an epidemic in our society,” he said, “It predisposes a person to so many health problems. Moving your body is literally a great first step.”
When asked what advice he would like to give all residents of the Pee Dee, Dr. Stellingworth said, “Think about your choices and what you’re eating. Stop and evaluate your habits,” he continued, “Just think about what you’re doing. You take care of your body and it will take care of you”. And, that is what you call “very good advice”.