Knowing Your Heart: Q&A with Millennial Cardiologist, Dr. Nicole Harkin about Heart Health

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By: Melissa Schenkman, MPH, MSJ

How well do you know your heart?

No, fellow millennials. I’m not talking about when it comes to love. But rather about that approximately 10 ounces of muscle beating in our chest that allows us to live every day.

We may feel young and invincible, but caring for our hearts and knowing about our heart health starts today! If it has not been on your radar already.

In recognition of American Heart Month, I talked with fellow millennial Nicole Harkin, MD, a board-certified cardiologist and internist, who integrates lifestyle and precision medicine to optimize her patients’ heart health in her practice at Whole Heart Cardiology.

She introduces us to what brings millennials to her practice and addresses common concerns those of us in our 20s, 30s, and newly minted 40-year-old’s have about our heart health from what we see in the media.

After all, as she points out, Generation Y is a far more informed generation when it comes to our health, but social media and the Internet bring with them a vast amount of misinformation as well.

Nicole Harkin, MD, FACC, is board-certified in cardiology, internal medicine, echocardiography, nuclear cardiology, clinical lipidology (specializing in cholesterol. Her interests in global health and epidemiology led her to become a preventive cardiologist working to fight heart disease–one of the leading causes of death around the world.

At YMyHealth and in partnership with Dr. Harkin, we get to learn about our heart health directly from the source:  A fellow millennial who also cares for millennials just like you.

YMyHealth: Dr. Harkin, millennials are known for thinking of themselves as being healthy and invincible overall. When it comes to their heart health, do you find millennials come to you with a mindset of prevention or because they are worried about a problem that has come up?

Dr. Harkin: Most typically I see millennials in the office because they have experienced a symptom that is concerning them and think it might be related to their heart. Often this is chest pain, shortness of breath, or palpitations.

Most of us don’t really think about our hearts until we feel something out of the ordinary! I’d like to see more of us taking a proactive approach about our health to protect our future selves.

YMyHealth: What are some common concerns millennials have about their heart that brings them in to come see you?

Dr. Harkin: Palpitations are probably the most common concern. Either a patient feels their heart racing at odd times or a flip-flopping sensation. Other times they feel a weird twinge in their chest that they want to be sure isn’t their heart. Thankfully, most of the time everything checks out OK, but it’s often a big wake-up call that they aren’t invincible.

YMyHealth: Let’s talk about palpitations for a moment, shall we? Since it’s such a common concern (I’ve experienced them too) can you describe for us what they really are and what they indicate?

How can palpitations impact our heart health in the 24-40-year-old age group, and when is it versus when is not, something that we should be concerned about?

Dr. Harkin:  Yes! Palpitations are a sensation of your heart beating in your chest. It’s often described as heart racing, skipping, or flip flopping.

It doesn’t necessarily mean anything is wrong – it might just be the heart responding normally to external stimuli like stress, caffeine, exercise, infection, hormonal changes, etc. This is different from an arrhythmia, in which there is an abnormal heart rhythm such as atrial fibrillation. Palpitations in young people, in the absence of heart disease or medical problems, are not typically dangerous, but you should be sure you check in with your doctor.

YMyHealth:  Another thing we often hear is the media reporting stories about people in their 30s dying completely unexpectedly of heart attacks. As people in this age group or close to it, how should we put this into perspective in terms of our lives and our actions about our own heart health?

Dr. Harkin:  The statistical odds of this happening to you specifically is very, very low. However, heart disease is not totally uncommon in younger people in general – about half of all heart attacks in this country happen to individuals under the age of 60. And many times, the first presentation of heart disease is death.

So, while it is very unlikely to happen to you, it’s really important to realize that heart disease doesn’t just happen to our grandparents. And the choices we make now, really truly impact us down the line.

Stay tuned for more blog posts featuring Dr. Harkin, where we will give you heart health information that’s relevant and important to our fellow millennials, including ways to prevent heart disease as a millennial, what to know about your cholesterol, and how to use your family medical history to keep your heart healthy.

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