Comprehensive care for heart disease

Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. and covers many other types of heart- and vascular-related disorders and diseases, including coronary artery disease, heart arrhythmia, congenital heart defects, blocked blood vessels (cardiovascular disease) and more.

The cardiac specialists in our heart center provide patients with the most comprehensive care possible for their heart conditions, starting with expert diagnosis to development of a personalized treatment plan. Whether your course of care requires medication, minimally invasive cardiac catheterization or vascular surgery, you can rest assured that your heart is in good hands at Sky Ridge.

Call (303) 645-0090 for an appointment with Aurora Denver Cardiology Associates in Lone Tree.

Heart disease risk assessment

Heart disease is the top killer among men and women, and a low-cost 15-minute coronary calcium scan can provide quick, easy-to-understand results that can help determine your or a loved one’s risk for having a heart attack.

Coronary calcium scan

The coronary calcium scan is a non-invasive imaging test that, beyond typical risk factors like cholesterol and family history, many cardiologists view as one of the best available tests for measuring cardiac risk.

Coronary calcium scans aren’t necessarily well known among patients as a predictor for measuring cardiac risk. Quite simply, a coronary calcium scan measures the amount of calcification in your arteries. When cholesterol and fat build up in your arteries, you’re at an increased risk for a heart attack. Where there’s more cholesterol, there’s more calcium, and this scan helps us visualize exactly how much calcium is currently in your arteries.

The scan is one of the easiest tests you can undergo. We tape electrodes to your chest, place you in an imaging machine (much like an MRI machine) and have you hold your breath for a few seconds while pictures are taken. After 10 to 15 minutes total, you’re out the door and will receive your results within 48 hours.

While a higher score does mean increased risk, we can work together to make sure that increased risk doesn’t turn into a heart attack. Lifestyle changes like proper diet, exercise, weight reduction, smoking cessation and control of blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugars are all a great place to start. Depending on each patient’s case, our cardiologists may also recommend medications like aspirin and statins.

People who haven’t had coronary artery disease (i.e. stents, bypass surgery, etc.) are prime candidates for a coronary calcium scan. Those with strong family histories of cardiac disease, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension or smoking are also great candidates, as are men over the age of 45 and women over 55.

Heart disease in women

Heart disease and stroke cause one in three deaths among women each year—more than all cancers combined. But we can change that because 80 percent of all cardiac events may be prevented with education and lifestyle changes.

Each year, twice as many women die of heart disease than of breast, lung and other cancers combined, and every year since 1984, more women than men have died of heart disease in the U.S.

Why are women so affected by heart disease?

One reason may be that women seem to have their heart disease diagnosed later in life when the disease is more advanced; therefore, they are more likely to die or suffer serious complications. The probability that a woman suffering a heart attack will die within one year is almost twice that of a man.

Because heart attack symptoms may be different in women than in men, the symptoms may be overlooked or misinterpreted. Also, women are referred for cardiac testing less frequently than men, and when those tests are performed, interpretation is sometimes more difficult due to gender differences.

How women can prevent heart disease

Some women have a family health history that predisposes them to a risk of heart disease. Knowing your family history and sharing that with your physician is extremely important so that he or she can monitor your health with appropriate cardiac screening tests.

However, there are a few factors that can be more easily controlled, including:

  • Smoking is a factor in about half of heart attacks in middle aged women. A woman who smokes and uses birth control pills increases her risk of heart disease even more.
  • High blood pressure, which can be controlled through diet and, if necessary, medication.
  • Women with diabetes are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, so it is essential that this disease be controlled with diet or medication and appropriate weight management.
  • Inactivity: 41 percent of overweight women are not physically active during their leisure time, leading to a 30 to 50 percent greater risk of developing high blood pressure.
  • Genetics: Genetic risk factors can make African American women, as a group, particularly vulnerable to a higher predisposition for heart disease and stroke.

Heart disease in men

According to the CDC, one in four men has some type of heart disease. There are many different types of heart disease—some are congenital (born with them) and others develop over the course of time and affect people later in life. Common factors that increase the risk of developing heart disease include:

  • Poor diet and nutrition
  • Lack of exercise and physical activity
  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • Weight

Survivor story

Rare heart attack strikes mostly women and patient shares story to boost awareness

The first time she walked into the Sky Ridge Cardiac Rehab center, full of treadmills and other fitness equipment, Jennifer Halvas burst out crying. It wasn’t the thought of exercise that upset the Castle Pines mom. Weeks before, the petite 42-year-old was swinging Kettlebells and perfecting powerlifts at a CrossFit studio. It was her new group of workout buddies smiling back at her that sparked the tears…it was a place she didn’t feel she belonged.

But, like it or not, she did fit in, as the otherwise healthy mother of three young children had recently suffered a heart attack. Not the traditional kind of cardiac arrest, where poor lifestyle choices can lead to plaque-blocked arteries, but a rare and little understood version, caused by a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD). Eight out of 10 of its victims are women.

“It would be much like a river, where a part of the bank collapses and blocks the mainstream,” says Dr. Barry Molk, Halvas’s doctor and chief of cardiology at Sky Ridge Medical Center. During SCAD, an inner layer of a coronary artery splits open, creating a pool of blood that pushes the tissue into the artery, starving the heart. To make matters worse? “We really don’t know why it happens,” Dr. Molk says.

A life changer

For Halvas, that uncertainty fuels fear. “My overall health isn’t as good as it was,” she says, sitting in the Sky Ridge Café in workout clothes and ponytail after a rehab session. “I feel like I can’t do as much, and … um,” she says, pausing to fight back tears but losing. “I have trouble with anxiety,” she finally manages. “They have absolutely no idea why it happens. I was doing all the right things, so what am I supposed to do now?”

Molk understands, noting that Halvas, whose attack left her with permanent damage to a lower section of her heart, epitomizes many SCAD sufferers: females with no known risk factors, such as drinking, smoking, high cholesterol, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle or family history. “It’s devastating,” Molk says. “These are young, fit women. A heart attack is the last thing they would ever expect.” But he can now monitor Halvas, who can still exercise but not to extreme exertion, and points out that he has a SCAD patient who is 25 years post-event and doing fine.

Since quick treatment can change outcomes and save lives, Halvas and Dr. Molk want to see more women and doctors educated about SCAD, which often occurs in women during pregnancy or early post-partum, possibly because of the physical or emotional stress, Dr. Molk says. Underlying connective-tissue disorders might also play a role for some patients, and about 20 percent of sufferers have a recurrence within 10 years.

“I must have had a guardian angel on my shoulder” –Jennifer Halvas

Closing a gap

Halvas’s story illustrates the need for education. It happened when she was just sitting on the couch in a Steamboat Springs condo during a family trip last summer. At first, it felt like heartburn, but soon, a gripping, painful pressure set in under her left breast, preventing her from taking a deep breath. She felt sick and sweaty, as the pain began radiating into her arm, back and jaw. When her husband, Rich, googled the symptoms and asked the obvious question, her response was: “Why would I be having a heart attack?”

At the nearby medical center, doctors alleviated her pain and ran standard cardiac tests, but when nothing immediately showed up in the results, they treated Halvas for heartburn and sent her on her way, an unfortunate move that doesn’t surprise Dr. Molk. Many doctors, Emergency Department included, are still unfamiliar with SCAD, he says.

Of course, Halvas and her husband were relieved, and enjoyed the next day, the last day of their trip, tubing the river with their kids, Lia, 13, and twins Kate and Eric, 9. The family made the drive back to Castle Pines, unpacked and said their good-nights when it happened again. “I was going up the stairs to bed, and it hit me like a Mack truck,” Halvas says.

This time, the couple went to Sky Ridge, where ER doctors ordered an overnight stay and ran, and re-ran, tests. Eventually, an EKG and blood enzyme test indicated heart damage, and Dr. Molk discovered the dissection. Although Halvas’ treatment includes only medications, more severe SCAD cases often require stents or bypasses.

Counting blessings

Halvas knows she’s lucky. “I must have had a guardian angel on my shoulder, especially on the river.” And living near Sky Ridge, which Dr. Molk says stands out for its community education, particularly its gender-specific education, helped. Sky Ridge has a large number of young-women patients and is a regional maternity hub. “We are particularly cognizant of SCAD and heart disease in women here because of our population,” Dr. Molk says.

Today, Halvas is dedicated to her monitored cardiac rehab workouts and enjoys her newfound fitness friends, who call her “the athlete” because she runs, rather than walks, on the treadmill. She also works to spread the word: “Know the symptoms of a heart attack that women can have them too, and that’s it’s not all about cholesterol,” she says. “If you have a heart, you’re at risk.”

Visit Aurora Denver Cardiology Associates in Castle Rock

4386 Trail Boss Drive
Castle Rock, CO 80104

To schedule an appointment at our Castle Rock office, call (303) 534-9563.