John Hardy

John Hardy

You’ve been diagnosed with heart disease. Now what?

How you can limit risk of further damage

Learning that you have heart disease can be discouraging, but it doesn’t have to be debilitating. 

“Think of it as a new beginning,” said J. Cullen Hardy, MD, a cardiologist at UVA Cardiology, a department of Novant Health UVA Health System Culpeper Medical Center.“It's often a positive thing that it's been diagnosed without any dangerous complications. At the very least, it is a massive wake-up call that you can't take your health for granted.” 

Heart disease refers to several different heart conditions, but the most common is coronary artery disease, which can cause a heart attack. Coronary artery disease occurs when plaque builds up in your arteries. Over time, those arteries can narrow, which reduces blood flow to your heart and puts you at risk for heart attack.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. About 655,000 Americans die from heart disease each year.

Making helpful changes

Hardy said the first thing he tells a patient who has been diagnosed with coronary artery disease is “you’re not alone.”

“Don’t be discouraged,” he added. “Engage with your physician and your medical care, and feel empowered that what you do will make a difference.”

For many people with coronary heart disease, the treatment is two-pronged – prescribed medicine that can lower your risk of additional plaque buildup and adopting healthy lifestyle changes.

  • Medicine. A range of medications can be prescribed, including aspirin, beta blockers and some that modify cholesterol levels such as statins.

  • Diet. Concentrate primarily on eating vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Combine that with fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, nuts and vegetable oils.

“Minimize the amount of sugar and processed foods you eat,” Hardy said. “Cut back on sugary drinks and fast foods.”

It’s helpful to follow either the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet, which was originally designed to help people control their blood pressure.

  • Exercise regularly. The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least five times per week, for a total of 150 minutes. Or, at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least three times per week, for a total of 75 minutes.

“The No. 1 thing I tell my patients is that if they're feeling well, exercise, exercise, exercise,” Hardy mentioned.

  • Quit smoking.

  • Reduce alcohol consumption. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that if alcohol is consumed, it should be in moderation - up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.

Taking advantage of a second chance

For some people, the first sign of heart disease is sudden death. But for many, their coronary heart disease is discovered early enough that they can modify their lifestyle to limit further heart damage.

The first step? See your doctor for regular check-ups. If a medical issue needs attention, catching it in the early stages is beneficial.

“Heart disease kills more people than all forms of cancer combined,” Hardy added. “Yet, 80 percent of heart disease is preventable, simply based on risk-factor modification. Having high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes are things that people tend to not feel or know they even have, unless they're getting screened regularly.”

Coronary heart disease can be managed with a combination of lifestyle changes and medications. With the correct treatment, symptoms can be reduced and your heart function will improve.

“I always tell patients to be positive, engaged, empowered, and to partner with their doctor,” Hardy said. “Fully commit to this journey.”

For more information on heart and vascular services at Novant Health UVA Health System, visit NovantHealthUVA.org/cardio.

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