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Despite the widely-known fact that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of adults in the United States, people are unclear about when, or if, they should see a cardiologist before experiencing symptoms of heart trouble.

"Base your decision on your risk factors," said Dr. David Wild, a cardiologist and Director of the Echocardiography Laboratory at Holy Name. "Don’t wait for a warning sign of a heart attack – by then it might be too late."

If you have one or more of the following risk factors, consider making an appointment with a cardiologist for an evaluation:

  • Family history of heart disease. Heart disease describes a range of conditions that affect the heart, including coronary artery disease, irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias), heart failure, and heart attack. Your risk is higher if older generations or current family members had or have heart disease.
  • High blood pressure. Blood pressure – the force at which blood pushes against arterial walls – is measured to determine how much blood and oxygen are reaching the heart. When blood pressure is high, less blood flows back to the heart. Normal blood pressure should be below 120/80. Early detection of high blood pressure is very important. Often referred to as the "silent killer" because it may cause no symptoms, high blood pressure puts you at an increased risk for heart disease, heart failure, and stroke, among other conditions.
  • High cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in your blood. High cholesterol means there is a danger of it clogging arteries and blocking blood flow to the heart.
  • A history of smoking. Smoking damages and narrows the arteries, increasing the risk for blockages.
  • Diabetes. Diabetes is a disease in which the body’s ability to produce or respond to the hormone insulin is impaired, resulting in abnormal metabolism of carbohydrates and elevated levels of glucose in the blood and urine. Diabetes can damage vessels, which can lead to heart disease. People with diabetes are twice as likely to have heart disease compared to those without the condition.

"If you have any of these risk factors, it would be wise to see a cardiologist for an evaluation," Dr. Wild said. "Even when people exercise and eat healthy, they could still have cardiovascular disease and may need medication or other treatment."

Talk to your primary care physician about your risk for heart disease and whether you should visit a cardiologist.

If you are experiencing chest pain or discomfort, pain down the arm or in the jaw, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea and feeling light-headed, you may be having a heart attack. Call 911 immediately.