As a cardiologist I am encouraged by the recent attention to health disparities, particularly among African Americans. Health care providers and systems must do better to ensure every person receives the care and treatments they need.
Part of our effort should empower Black Ohioans and all patients to live healthy lives and know the warning signs of diseases for which they are at higher risk.
According to the Office of Minority Health, which is part of the Department for Health and Human Services, African Americans are generally at higher risk for heart diseases, as well as diabetes, stroke, HIV/AIDS, cancer, asthma and some other chronic illnesses.
I specialize in treatment for a rare form of heart disease called cardiac amyloidosis.
Cardiac amyloidosis occurs in older adults, mostly men. One particular gene abnormality, which leads to cardiac amyloidosis, is very common (3 out of 100) in the African American population.
Cardiac amyloidosis affects the heart, kidneys and other organs leading to progressive complications and heart failure. This disease occurs when an abnormal protein, called amyloid, builds up in organs, including the heart, kidneys and digestive tract, and interferes with the way they work. While some types of amyloidosis are inherited, there are other types that are caused by other illnesses, such as bone marrow disorders.
In the medical community, we sometimes refer to this disease as “the Great Pretender” because the most common symptoms can lead to a diagnosis that does not include cardiac amyloidosis. For someone with this disease, symptoms may start as carpal tunnel syndrome, then progress to eye problems, peripheral neuropathy, shortness of breath or dizziness, irregular heart rhythm and then stroke. Life expectancy after diagnosis is two to three and a half years.
Too often, amyloidosis is diagnosed when the disease has become advanced or while in treatment for another illness. While treatment for bone marrow disorder causing amyloidosis include chemotherapy, organ or stem cell transplants, there are now prescriptions medications that assist with controlling symptoms and slowing down the progression of this condition.
It is encouraging to note that heart health advocates are stepping up to educate the public and medical providers about this under-recognized disease. Dr. Stephen Sroka is one of the best and most amazing messengers about cardiac amyloidosis.
Dr. Sroka is an adjunct assistant professor at Case Western School of Medicine and a motivational speaker. During a speech to 800 students at a Medina High School a few years ago, he collapsed on stage from a cardiac arrest. He was immediately assisted by school resource officers and a principal trained in the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED). Once he was under a cardiologist’s care at the Cleveland Clinic, he was found to have a form of cardiac amyloidosis.
Today, Dr. Sroka is back on the speaking circuit, thanks to his determination to recover and maintain his health. Dr. Sroka and hundreds of other patients contributed to clinical trials which resulted in the first FDA-approved medicine for his form of cardiac amyloidosis.
As medical professionals and researchers, we continue to study this disease and develop the right treatments to allow patients to have quality of life. My colleagues at the Comprehensive Amyloidosis Clinic at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center bring expertise in cardiology, hematology, nephrology, neurology and physical therapy, all to help the patients we serve.
And we all agree, the more patients know, the better we can help them. We encourage anyone who may think they have certain warning signs, such as the symptoms discussed here, to alert your physician.
Dr. Ajay Vallakati, M.D., is a cardiologist in Columbus. He is affiliated with Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.