Living Well: Avoid Heart Problems Later By Acting Now - Owensboro Health

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Published on February 23, 2017

Living Well: Avoid Heart Problems Later By Acting Now

What would you be willing to do to stay off my operating table?

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it’s projected to get worse.

The American Heart Association released a study on Valentine’s Day of this year that predicts nearly half of Americans will have some form of heart disease by 2035. Heart disease isn’t a problem that occurs overnight. What you do now can help keep your heart healthy in the years to come.

Sicker Patients

In 1985, the number of heart disease-related deaths per year hit its highest point, 771,169. We’ve made a lot of progress since then and that number has come down quite a bit. In 2011, the number of heart disease-related deaths was 596,577, the lowest it had been since 1956. But now, that number is headed back up.

Part of the reason that heart disease-related deaths went down has to do with improvements in healthcare. Unfortunately, healthcare can only do so much. The number is headed back up because the overall health of the population is worsening. That includes higher rates of obesity, diabetes and other problems that are connected to heart disease. In Kentucky, it also is strongly affected by high rates of smoking.

As a cardiothoracic surgeon, I see the effects of this in the operating room. The patients I see tend to be sicker, and we’re seeing serious problems at earlier ages. For sicker patients, surgeries take longer and are usually more complex, because these patients have more problems that need addressing and have higher risks of complications.

Advancing Care

Overall heart care has come a long way, and that is partly because of the development of heart surgery. We have more advanced technology, improved techniques and a better understanding of how we can deliver this kind of surgical care.

Technology is important in heart surgery before, during and after an operation. We use advanced imaging and diagnostic devices to help us detect and understand a patient’s heart problems. We have surgical devices, including surgeon-operated robots that allow us to perform minimally invasive surgeries. We can also implant long-term devices, such as artificial valves or electrical devices that can correct heart rhythm problems.

We’ve also made improvements in the way we practice medicine itself. In last week Living Well column, Dr. Peter Gregor talked about the team approach to heart care. As a surgeon, I value this kind of teamwork because not only do we work together closely, we work very well. This team-based approach is the future of healthcare, and it’s one of the best things we can do today for our patients.

Partnering With Our Patients

As a cardiothoracic surgeon, I am trained to care for people and hopefully improve their lives. But at the same time, I want people to understand that they have far more power over their heart health than I ever will. I can turn back the clock, so to speak, by performing heart surgery. But what people do before and after I operate is far more important.

Taking good care of yourself, through good eating habits and physical activity, is essential. Doctors say this over and over because we know it’s true. It can help delay the onset of heart disease or prevent it altogether. Your overall health also affects the care options available if you do develop heart disease or other problems at some point in your life.

Do I expect everyone to go out and run a marathon and give up on eating the delicious foods they love? Of course not. But I do hope to see more people making small changes for the better. Quit smoking (or don’t start), eat more fresh vegetables, and go for a half-hour walk at least five times each week. Bad health habits add up over time, but good habits do too.

If you have questions about the small changes you can make every day to improve your health, talk to your primary care provider. If you don’t have a primary care provider, start seeing one at least once a year. Make them a partner in your care and take action to preserve your heart health. If you do that, chances are I won’t be seeing you on my operating table anytime soon.

Dr. Ken Ung is a board-certified cardiothoracic surgeon with Owensboro Health’s One Health medical group. For more information or to request an appointment with a One Health provider, call 844-44-MY-ONE (844-446-9663).

About Owensboro Health

Owensboro Health is a nonprofit health system with a mission to heal the sick and to improve the health of the communities it serves in Kentucky and Indiana. The system includes Owensboro Health Regional Hospital, nationally recognized for design, architecture and engineering and the only hospital in the world to be designated a Signature Sanctuary by Audubon International, Owensboro Health Muhlenberg Community Hospital, the Owensboro Health Medical Group comprising over 180 providers in 25 locations, a certified medical fitness facility, and the Mitchell Memorial Cancer Center. Owensboro Health has been recognized for outstanding care, safety and clinical excellence by The Joint Commission, U.S. News & World Report and Becker’s Hospital Review. As the largest employer west of Louisville, Owensboro Health has 4,088 employees, and in FY 2015 saw 18,380 inpatient admissions and 823,072 outpatient encounters. A committed community partner, Owensboro Health provided grants of $702,924 in the last year to health, social service, education and arts agencies across the region. For more information, visit

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