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Much like the engine in your car, your heart is the most complex and essential machine in your body. Unfortunately, your heart doesn’t come with a check engine light to alert you when there’s a problem.

That’s why routine heart screening tests are so necessary. These simple tests can help determine your risk for heart disease and catch problems with your heart before they turn deadly.

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Common Heart Screening Tests

While a heart attack can strike suddenly, you could have signs and symptoms for a while. Your doctor will perform many heart screening tests during your annual wellness exam to help identify and address problems early. These tests include:

  • Blood pressure. Having high blood pressure puts extra stress on your heart and blood vessels. Healthy blood pressure is at or under 120/80.
  • Cholesterol (also called fasting lipid profile). This measures the total cholesterol — HDL (good) cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides (a type of fat) — in your blood. High LDL levels can increase your risk of heart attack or stroke.
  • Blood sugar (glucose). If you have or are at high risk for diabetes, your doctor may check your fasting blood glucose level. They may also test your A1c level, which measures your 3-month average blood glucose level. Uncontrolled blood sugar increases your risk of heart attack or stroke. Normal fasting glucose is less than 100 mg/dl, and an A1c of 6.5% or higher can indicate diabetes.
  • Weight and BMI. Being overweight with a BMI over 25 increases your risk of a heart attack, especially if you carry weight in your abdomen. Your doctor also may measure your waist circumference to determine your risk.

Because heart disease is often hereditary, your doctor will ask about your family history. If your parents, grandparents, or siblings have had heart problems, you may be at higher risk for heart disease. If that’s the case, you may need more frequent or more in-depth testing.

If There’s a Problem

Abnormal findings on your heart screening don’t guarantee heart problems. Instead, think of them as a check engine light coming on — a sign that something needs to be fixed before it breaks down.

Depending on your screening results, you may be able to reduce your risk by making the following lifestyle changes:

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet.
  • Get more exercise.
  • Lose weight.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Manage stress.

In many cases, these adjustments will improve your blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels. Your doctor may prescribe medicines if lifestyle changes aren’t enough. In some cases, they may recommend additional tests to get a closer look at your heart, including:

  • ECG, or electrocardiogram, to measure the electrical activity of your heart.
  • Echocardiogram, or an ultrasound of your heart.
  • Cardiac catheterization, to examine your heart’s vessels and check for plaque deposits.
  • Angiogram, an x-ray of the blood flow throughout your veins and arteries.

How and When to Get Screened

Ask your health care provider what’s best for you, but here are some general guidelines from the American Heart Association:

  • Have your weight and blood pressure checked at least annually at your wellness exam. Your doctor may suggest checking your blood pressure at home.
  • Cholesterol checks should start at age 20. Continue them every 4 to 6 years if you’re at low or average risk — more frequently if you’re at higher risk for heart disease.
  • Check your glucose at age 45, and every 3 years afterward if you’re at average risk for diabetes.

It’s also essential to listen to your body. Contact your doctor immediately for the following symptoms, which can signal heart problems:

  • Shortness of breath when active or laying down.
  • Chest pain or discomfort, especially after activity.
  • Pain or pressure in your jaw, neck, back, shoulders, or arms .
  • An irregular heartbeat.
  • Fatigue or weakness.
  • Swelling of the hands, feet, ankles, or stomach.

Heart disease — the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States — is often preventable. The specialists at UPMC’s Heart and Vascular Institute understand the importance of heart screenings and are here to help. Call 1-855-876-2484 (1-855-UPMC-HVI) today to schedule an appointment or to learn more about our heart screening events.

Heart Health Screenings. American Heart Association.

Prevent Heart Disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.