05 Feb Six Questions for a Cardiologist
Olympic Medical Physicians cardiologist Dr. Robert Henson II answers what he thinks is the best—and worst—thing you can do for your heart, why he chose to specialize in cardiology, what advancements in the field excite him and how it’s been working through a pandemic.
Q: What’s the best thing a person can do for their heart to make sure it stays healthy?
Dr. Henson: The single, absolute most important thing anyone can do throughout their lives to keep healthy is exercise. It’s probably the biggest thing we’re missing in our culture, making time in the day to get in a brisk walk or jog on the treadmill, really anything to get our heart rate up for 30 to 45 minutes a day.
Exercise keeps your weight down, reduces dementia, reduces the risk of heart attack, strokes and vascular diseases. It’s probably the single most important thing you can do.
The American Heart Association recommends 45 minutes of exercise three to four days a week. Whatever it takes to work out a sweat, get tired, get a little short of breath, that’s what they call exercise. Whether it’s jogging or treadmilling or biking or a brisk walk. Four to five days a week is best, two to three times a week is almost as good as four to five, one day a week is almost as good as twice a week and anything is better than doing nothing at all. Generally, exercise is good for you and too much is always better than not enough.
Q: What’s the worst thing someone can do for their heart?
Dr. Henson: Most people think about blocked arteries when they think of heart health. Inflammation is the worst thing for arteries. Smoking causes inflammation. Being overweight causes inflammation. Exercise reduces inflammation. Many of the medications and diets that help with this do so at least partly by decreasing general levels of inflammation.
The worst thing you can do for your arteries is being out of shape, having belly fat and smoking . . . anything. We’re fortunate out here on the Olympic Peninsula because the air is so clean, and there’s no reason to mess that up with smoking.
Another thing to look out for is high salt in your diet. It increases your blood pressure and may increase general levels of inflammation. So be mindful of processed foods and eat fruits and vegetables. Nobody likes to hear this, but lots of bacon, ham, sausage and other processed meats probably isn’t good for you.
Q: What do you know about the heart that everybody else should know?
Dr. Henson: The human body is an amazing thing. It’s fascinating to me that when you get sick, there are forces in your body that try to guide you back to health. If you get a bad infection or a heart attack – your body has mechanisms that heal itself. Our job, at best, is to aid and encourage those forces getting you back to optimum health.
For your heart, it has to keep working while it heals – that is the challenging issue with heart disease, and the biggest success of the past generation. We now understand some of these healing forces, and can encourage and emphasize the pathway to best long-term function.
Q: Why did you specialize in cardiology?
Dr. Henson: I couldn’t think of anything better to do. Honestly, there’s nothing better to do than this.
I like that cardiology is logical, which suits me. One of the things I like to do best is translate complex science into everyday language so people can use that information wisely, whether it’s good advice on lifestyle or which are the right medicines for them and which aren’t. There is so much misinformation out there, it is hard to know what is real and what is not. If I can help people understand the science, then the decisions on what to do become very logical and clear.
Q: What advancements in your field are you most excited about?
Dr. Henson: Probably in the 25 years I’ve been in cardiology, the biggest changes have been the greater understanding of the molecular basis of what’s going on. Medical therapies have developed to the point where they’re stronger than some of the surgeries that we used to do in the past. The current treatment for coronary artery disease, which was often something we did stents or bypasses on first, is now medical first – with procedures being done either for acute emergencies for times when things progress despite good medical care.
The next big change is that we are getting better with doing things in the cardiac catheterization lab that we used to have to do open-heart surgery for. It’s an amazing evolution to more directed and more refined techniques. It takes years and years and many generations of scientists and doctors to evolve to this point. We are truly standing on the shoulders of giants.
Q: How has the last year been for you professionally, particularly when it comes to practicing during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Dr. Henson: We’re pretty fortunate in our little corner of the United States, our community’s done very good at holding down the spread of the disease. Many areas of the country are not so fortunate.
Probably the most profound realization to me is that I am surrounded by heroes in the community. In the clinics, the hospital, in the supermarket. Soldiers, when they sign up for the army, know they may be put in harm’s way. The nurse on the med/surg floor, the respiratory or ECG tech in the ER or the echo tech did not sign up for a job where they could go to work someday and contract an illness which could change their life or kill them (or a family member). As well as the many people in the community like the folks at the grocers, shops and others that see multitudes of people each day. None of these health care workers signed up for a front-line job in a war, but all of these people are showing up for work and keeping our community operating. All are heroes in my mind. The community has really respected these everyday heroes by following the public health distancing and masking guidelines.
I do urge anyone able to get vaccinated to go through with that – it will help you, but even more importantly, it will build the shield that our county needs to protect everyone in the county. From a moral standpoint, I really don’t think there is any reason someone would not contribute to our community shield and allow a single person to get ill that does not need to. I think the decision to get vaccinated is another example of being an everyday hero.
To answer your question, professionally, the most amazing thing I’ve learned is that I am surrounded by everyday heroes.
To learn more about cardiovascular health on the Olympic Peninsula, visit www.olympicmedical.org/healthyheart.