What can you do to prevent heart disease?

Laura Rush, RN, checks Vicky Walker’s blood pressure. Rush is a smoking cessation counselor and diabetes educator with Spectrum Health Big Rapids Hospital and Walker is currently in the smoking cessation program. (Pioneer photo/Candy Allan)

BIG RAPIDS — A person’s heart beating is like breathing — most people simply don’t pay attention to the fact they’re doing it until they’re not.

February is nationally recognized as American Heart Month and heart disease is cited by the Centers for Disease Control as the leading cause of death for both men and women, accounting for one in four deaths a year, according to cdc.gov. Heart disease refers to a variety of ailments which affect the cardiovascular system.

“Part of the reason cardiovascular disease is so deadly is it’s a silent killer,” said Dr. Joshua Vander Lugt, emergency department medical director at Spectrum Health Big Rapids and Reed City Hospitals, noting people may not notice symptoms until the disease has progressed to dangerous levels.

“People should schedule a visit with their doctor to talk about heart health even if they don’t think they’re sick,” he said. “It slowly takes over and before you know it, you’re too sick to get back to a healthy baseline.”

Individuals should be aware of their blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels, which together with other factors will help them and their doctor determine their risk of heart disease.

One of the biggest factors regarding whether an individual will develop cardiovascular disease is heredity, Vander Lugt said. People are considered to have a strong family history of heart disease if a first-degree relative — think parents or siblings — have the disease.

“We’re not worried about your grandma who had her first attack at 90, but your dad who had his first heart attack at 40,” Vander Lugt said.

While people can’t do anything about their genetics or family health history, there are other risk factors they can control, including weight, exercise and whether or not they smoke.

“Quit smoking,” he said. “Smoking is one of the biggest factors for heart disease, especially with people who have a predisposition to heart disease. When we breathe in smoke, what we’re doing is introducing toxins and harmful chemicals like cyanide and carbon monoxide into our lungs, and those things get sent through our lungs into our bloodstream and cardiovascular system.”

Smokers are often familiar with the medical reasons why they shouldn’t be lighting up, said Vicky Walker, of Mecosta. After all, well-meaning people — their doctors, friends and family members — are telling them the statistics all time.

After smoking about two packs a day for more than 40 years, Walker decided to stop smoking in an effort to improve her health. Her quit date was Dec. 11, 2017.

“The hardest part was finding something to do with my hands,” she said, adding she often plays games on her phone when she gets a craving.

She’s noticed an improvement in her breathing and stamina when doing chores such as bringing in wheelbarrow-loads of wood for her furnace. Her friends have commented her voice sounds “less raspy” and Walker says she “generally feels better” but acknowledges quitting wasn’t easy.

“It can be done. I know it’s hard, but it can be done. I smoked over 40 years and I did it. There are people willing to help,” she said.

Walker quit with the assistance of the smoking cessation program at Spectrum Health. Laura Rush, RN, is a cessation counselor with the program and a diabetes educator. Rush noted many of the techniques taught in classes for people who are pre-diabetic work hand-in-hand with smoking cessation. She also noted the cessation programs don’t have a definite end date.

“You can’t put a four-week time limit on stopping smoking,” Rush said.

After quitting smoking, or better yet, never starting, the best way to control risk of heart disease to get to and maintain a healthy weight, Vander Lugt said.

At a healthy weight “you’re less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes, your blood pressure will be healthier, it improves circulation, improves your body’s ability to tolerate exercise, puts less stress on your joints and improves your sleep,” he said.

Additionally, efforts to control weight such as getting sufficient rest, drinking more water and exercise also serve to improve heart health. The key is setting reasonable goals and timelines.

“Lots of patients say they’re going to lose 40 pounds in a few days,” Rush said, describing headlong dives into healthy eating and intense exercise. “They go a couple of weeks or a month at the most, but they can’t keep up the pace.”

Vander Lugt agreed pacing was important in health goals.

“Don’t say you’re going to lose 50 pounds in the next month,” he said. “To lose weight in a healthy way, you’re talking about losing pounds over weeks to months rather than days.”

Moderate exercise also works in smaller sessions, especially for people just getting started.

“Taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking farther from the store — everybody has a different exercise tolerance,” he said. “The CDC suggests starting by walking 15 minutes three times a week and by mid-month increasing it to 30 minutes three times a week. Most people would get about a mile in 30 minutes, so you’d be walking a mile three to four times a week.”

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Posted by Candy Allan

Candy is the Pioneer's associate editor. She also coordinates the Family & Friends, Religion and Parenting pages. She can be reached by phone at (231) 592-8386 or by e-mail at callan@pioneergroup.com.

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