Cardiovascular providers at Southcoast Health want to change the conversation around cardiac care. They want to talk about wellness and prevention as much as treatment so they can help improve the region’s overall health.

“Southeastern Massachusetts is one of the least healthy areas of the state for cardiac disease, which is the number one cause of death in the United States,” said Dr. Iraklis Gerogiannis, Chair of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Southcoast Health. “So cardiac wellness is extremely important for us.”

A healthy diet, exercise and kicking the cigarette habit are essential for heart health, he said. But obesity is at epidemic levels and rates of smoking in the region are among the highest in the state. At the same time, inactivity and poor eating habits contribute to high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, which all increase the risk of heart disease.

When Dr. Gerogiannis performs an open heart surgery or other cardiac intervention at Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River, it gives him a chance to discuss wellness with patients and families. He directs them to smoking cessation programs and talks about the assistance they can get with planning dietary changes and exercise.

“I want to take advantage of that teachable moment,” he said. “Open heart surgery is so invasive and so difficult for patients that they can be open to making changes.”

Dr. Ashwini Sahni, a fellow Southcoast Health cardiologist who practices in Wareham, says “like any cardiologist, I want to heal my patients by fixing what’s broken. But I also try to keep an eye on the future.”

He worries about statistics that show obesity in American children rising at an alarming rate. He said he fears that if the situation does not improve, he may soon be treating hypertension in patients in their 20s.

He is also concerned that one in six Americans is taking psychiatric drugs, mainly antidepressants, and that increasing numbers of people are becoming chemically dependent. There are studies that link depression and heart attack, and sustained stress and anxiety are related to a host of unhealthy behaviors.

“I talk about stress management with every patient,” he said “You don’t eat right when you feel stress. Your blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormones, and sugars go up.”

He also urges them to start exercising and leads a health walk every month starting at the Wareham YMCA. The free program also includes yoga instruction, meditation, and lessons in vegan cooking, which can improve all aspects of health.

“One in three Americans are at risk to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime,” he said. “We don’t know all the causes, but red meat consumption has been shown to have an association with colorectal cancer.”

While a vegetarian diet is not for everyone, cardiologists urge patients to adopt a Mediterranean diet, which limits meat in favor of fish, legumes, fruits and vegetables.

Proper eating, stress management and exercise are also part of the Southcoast Health Atrial Fibrillation Wellness Program, directed by Dr. Nitesh Sood. Commonly known as AFib, the condition involves a sustained, irregular heart rhythm, which is associated with a high risk of heart failure, blood clots, and stroke.

AFib is on the rise nationally, and in 2012 Southcoast Health had the second highest rate of hospital discharges for the disease, according to the American Heart Association. Drugs can help control heart rhythm and thin blood to avoid clots.

In addition, Southcoast Health has the latest technology to perform cardiac ablations, which use a catheter to destroy the cells that cause the irregular heartbeats, and to implant the Watchman device, a tiny mesh shield placed in the heart to guard against blood clots.

“But nothing is successful in isolation,” said Sood, a cardiac electrophysiologist.

Drugs have side effects and without treating the underlying causes, AFib can return after surgery, he said. So he decided to help patients address the condition’s major causes — sleep apnea, obesity, stress and drinking alcohol — by establishing the wellness program.

The program’s goal is to help patients manage their condition, prevent a return following surgery, avoid the need for surgery and even reverse the disease.

“We have had a very good response,” he said. “The best part of this is that patients have done extremely well. We have people who have lost 15 to 20 pounds, and whose AFib is gone.”

Dr. Gerogiannis said he often hears patients blame their heart condition on bad genes, but heredity alone rarely causes heart disease. Multiple studies show the importance of healthy habits, but the first step is to know where you stand. Patients should speak with their cardiologist or primary care physician about their blood pressure, cholesterol level, and other risk factors, and then plan a wellness approach.

“We are so careful to service our cars when they need it and to take care of our homes,” Dr. Gerogiannis said. “We need to show the same care for our own bodies.”

This article was written and provided by Southcoast Health.