By Emily Williams
By 2030, the American Heart Association hopes to increase life expectancy in the United States from 66 to 68 and globally from 64 to 67.
The goal was rolled out at the beginning of this year, just in time for February, which is identified as National Heart Month.
In a report published by the AHA in January 2019, heart disease was the number one cause of death in the U.S. and stroke was the fifth.
“The highest incidence of heart disease in all of the United States is found in the southeast, and Birmingham sits almost in the middle of that area,” said Dr. John T. Eagan Jr., a Birmingham native and cardiologist with Cardiovascular Associates.
AHA research projects that more than 45% of the population will have some form of cardiovascular disease by 2035.
“Unfortunately, in the United States, at least half of the population has one of the (cardiovascular) risk factors – such as, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, physical inactivity,” Eagan said.
With such a large population affected by cardiovascular disease, there is a great need for professionals who can treat patients with themost advanced treatments.
At CVA, Eagan works with what he defines as the top talent covering each sub-specialty of cardiology. It is a medical field he has always aspired to be a part of.
“My father, who recently passed away at the age of 90, was a cardiologist and one of the first cardiologists trained at Duke University,” he said.
When Eagan was 3 years old, his father moved the family to practice in Birmingham. His father’s career spanned 60 years. Throughout much of his childhood and adolescence, Eagan would spend summers helping out at his father’s clinics or in his operating room at the hospital, completing orderly tasks.
“I grew up from a very young age admiring him, wanting to be like him,” Eagan said. “That’s why I chose the field of medicine, but also, specifically the field of cardiology.”
After graduating from medical school and studying internal medicine at UAB, Eagan left to train at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta and the Arizona Heart Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, before he was recruited to return to Birmingham in 1993 to join CVA.
“Other well-trained cardiologists like me have come to Birmingham, and together we provide the highest level of care found anywhere in the United States,” he said. “I know this to be true because of my training at Emory and Arizona Heart, and working with colleagues across the U.S.”
Ready for a Change
His position in his current practice has allowed Eagan to “push the envelope” and advocate for the adoption of new methods of treatment.
After 25 years as an interventional cardiologist, Eagan needed a change. Having been exposed to an extensive amount of radiation, he knew it was time to focus on another specialty within the field.
A little more than a decade ago, there was a major development in cardiology, namely the growth of vascular knowledge and treatment.
“The venous world had been one of those nebulous areas of medicine that no one really knew what to do with, how to treat veins,” he said. “I got on the cutting edge of (vascular treatment) in the late 2000s and became board certified in phlebology – which is the study of veins,” he said.
According to Eagan, nearly 80 million Americans have some type of venous abnormality.
“It’s a very common problem but under-diagnosed and under-treated,” he said.
He said there had been rapid developments in treatment of venous disease over the previous 10 years, including new devices and interventional techniques. For example, in the past, people with superficial venous disease of the lower leg typically would have been treated with surgical stripping.
“We found that stripping actually induced trauma and made the condition worse,” he said. “Through a lot of the research that has been going on for the last 15 years, it’s been shown that ablating veins – with cold or heat techniques – is a better way to treat abnormal veins.”
Additionally, new interventional techniques have been developed to maintain proper blood flow in the deep venous system and remove life-threatening blood clots.
Tools used in these procedures have changed rapidly over the past five years.
Through a decade-long partnership with Brookwood Baptist Health systems, Eagan and his fellow CVA physicians have been able to use the latest tech to provide the highest-quality, cutting-edge care for patients.
The hospital is working to further advance its Structural Heart and Valve Center.
“Not only do they have one of the best hybrid (operating rooms) in the state, where they perform these new structural heart procedures – that’s been going on for at least a year – they are also adding three brand new cardiac catheterization labs with a chest pain center. Those will open up, we believe, at the first of April,” he said.
The trend in most medical fields, and certainly in cardiology, is toward less invasive treatment.
“There are a lot of reasons for that, but the main reason is safety and effectiveness,” Eagan said.
For example, valve surgery, which in the past required opening the chest, can be completed subcutaneously through small incisions.
“Minimally invasive techniques like these … are just as, if not more, effective and safer,” he said. “Also, you can use less anesthetic and that incurs much less risk for the patient.
Prevention Is Key
While treatment methods and knowledge of the cardiovascular system advances, one thing remains the same.
“Risk modification and healthy habits are important when it comes to heart health,” Eagan said. “We know that a large portion of cardiovascular disease is from the environment and how we treat bodies.”
Living a heart healthy lifestyle requires a combination of healthy eating, limiting alcohol intake and regular exercise, as well as keeping weight down.
“And certainly, at all costs, do not use tobacco of any form. Period,” he said.
The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology also recommend that people take at least 10,000 steps each day.
There are many devices available that keep track of your steps, Eagan said, whether it’s a pedometer or an app on your Apple Watch.
In addition, he noted that it is vital to regularly check cholesterol and blood pressure and to test for diabetes.
“Those things can prevent more serious problems,” he said. “Genetics also comes into play, and there is not much that can be done about that. But, regardless, prevention is absolutely the key.”