Blood Flow

There's no doubt that people today are living longer than ever. Although many reasons may exist for this increased longevity, better treatment for heart disease surely is one of them.

"During my career, I have seen tremendous progress in treating heart disease," says Bernard Harrison, MD, a cardiovascular surgeon with Park Nicollet Heart and Vascular Center. "This includes new medications, implantable devices and cutting-edge technologies for diagnosing and treating most heart conditions."

Because of these innovations, many patients often receive earlier, less-invasive treatments, allowing them to delay or forego traditional heart surgery. "Today, open-heart surgery is reserved for patients with more complex heart disease," Dr. Harrison says.

Early treatment is best

"In general, the earlier a heart condition is diagnosed and treated, the better," Dr. Harrison continues. "In fact, the best treatment begins very early - with prevention. By not smoking, watching your weight and getting regular exercise, you can avoid other heart disease risks - like obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes." To learn more, read "Stopping heart disease in its tracks."

Medication a first step

Once people are diagnosed with heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends treating it with three medications: a beta-blocker to control blood pressure, a statin to control cholesterol and low-dose aspirin to prevent clotting, read bye bye foundation. "People who follow this regimen typically are more likely to avoid heart attacks and enjoy a longer life," Dr. Harrison says.

Stents - a major breakthrough

Today, if patients have angina (chest pain), or if a stress test suggests a severely blocked artery, they may be treated with a stent. A stent is a metal, mesh-like tube that reopens a blocked artery. These devices often are inserted using a catheter during an angiogram. An angiogram is a diagnostic procedure that allows doctors to see blocked arteries using an X-ray camera and guidance system.

What's ahead for heart surgery

Sometimes, bypass surgery remains the best option to improve blood flow. During this procedure, surgeons create a detour around a blocked artery by using a healthy blood vessel from another part of the body. Bypass surgery remains a common procedure for heart surgeons. "It's just that our patient profile has changed. Now bypass surgery tends to be reserved for older or sicker patients," Dr. Harrison says.

Many times, heart disease is caused by problems affecting the heart valves, the flaps between chambers that keep blood flowing in the right direction. "Valve replacement is very exciting right now," Dr. Harrison says. "Advances in tissue preservation have made tissue valve replacement a better option, because it eliminates the need for the patient to take blood thinning medication - and that's a huge advantage."

High-tech guidance

Park Nicollet also is using the da VinciR Surgical System, a robotic device that allows surgeons to perform less invasive cardiothoracic surgery. In many cases, robotic surgery allows surgeons to make smaller incisions between the ribs to perform coronary bypass surgery.

"In time, with further technological advances, we can expect to perform even more procedures without opening the chest," Dr. Harrison says. "We also expect more patients will have procedures early in their illness, treating conditions that don't yet show symptoms," he adds.