Hey, you!! Yeah! You. Do you realize that you just may be living with a time bomb and don’t even know it? It’s not exactly ‘strapped to your chest,’ but close. More accurately, it’s ‘in your chest.’ And, despite the fact that it is ticking, you may not even be aware of it. So, let’s take a few minutes and figure out how we might diffuse this potential problem. Your life just might depend on it.
The ‘bomb’ we’re talking about is your heart. It is that amazing little muscle that we, despite our best of intentions, simply take for granted. In so many ways, the heart is what makes us who we are.
Since man has walked upright, he has – metaphorically – made the heart the center of his universe. It symbolizes his ability and capacity to love. It’s also the driving force for his inspiration to do just about anything; travel, dream, challenge, conquer, even fight wars. While the heart symbolizes all that is good, any soliloquy to its greatness actually takes away from the fundamental and indispensable role it plays each and every day.
Very simply, the heart amazes. Don’t believe it? This is just a sample of what it does:
- From birth, it beats 100,000 times a day
- In a lifetime, it will pump 1,000,000 barrels of blood
- It nourishes 75,000,000,000,000 (trillion) cells in your body – constantly
- It outworks every single muscle in the body
And yet, despite its amazing efficiency and durability, too often, we take it for granted. And that is the reason heart disease is the number one killer in America. Unfortunately, the heart is one of those ‘out-of sight, out-of-mind’ kind of things.
“We don’t even think about it,” says University of Colorado Medical Center Cardiologist, Dr. Mark Keller. But ever since he was a young man, matters of the heart have ruled his life.
“When I was a medical student, my father had open heart surgery for an abnormal heart valve,” he said recently. “It just wore out and had to be fixed.” And while the techniques used to repair his father’s heart more than thirty years ago did the trick, heart procedures, including heart transplants, have come a long way since.
“When I started doing it, most of the therapies, we didn’t even have,” remembers Keller. There was no such thing as angioplasty – a procedure to widen narrowed or obstructed arteries. AED’s (automated external defibrillation) were unheard of. There were no therapies for curing valve disease. Today’s heart drugs, like verapamil, were guarded like state secrets. “It was locked in a safe,” the doctor recalls. Today, it’s a five-dollar prescription drug.
Medical advances in coronary care have come a light year since a 45-year-old South African surgeon, Dr. Christiaan Barnard, successfully performed the first heart transplant in 1967. Since then, more than 100,000 similar procedures have been done worldwide on this amazing organ that is only slightly larger than a normal-sized pomegranate.
Last year, there were more than 2,200 heart transplants performed in the U.S., an average of six a day. They were done on patients at major hospitals as well as on patients in far smaller health centers, too.
Leading the way, Cedar Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. Doctors there have performed more than 600 procedures with an 89 percent success rate, that is, patients living a year or more after surgery. The recipients of the procedure have ranged from infants to elderly.
While genetics is often the cause of heart disease, more often than not it can be traced to lifestyle. And, despite a Surgeon General report issued more than fifty years ago, one lifestyle choice, smoking, continues to be the leading cause of heart disease.
A few days ago, Pat, a slight, salt-and-pepper haired woman who asked her full name not be used, sat, cigarette in hand, enjoying a beautiful day at Denver’s Sloan’s Lake. The 64-year-old retiree says smoking, a habit she admits is unpleasant, has been part of her life for more than forty years.
“I started when I was 21,” says Pat. She’s tried to quit – tons of times – but never successfully. But this year, for Lent, she’s trying something new. “I light it, take a few puffs and let it go out.” The cold ash on her Pall Mall is testament to her new approach. It’s not a sure-fire way of quitting, she says, but it does have its advantages. She’s saving money. “I don’t have to go buy a new pack every day.” Her $28 a week habit has been slashed to a mere eight dollars.
And while Lent has meant fewer trips to buy cigarettes for Pat, the Centers for Disease Control says, in general, it’s not slowing down Latinos in buying these self-contained nicotine delivery systems. The CDC reports smoking remains the number one killer of Latinos across the U.S. Hispanic youth, it says, also have higher smoking rates than their counterparts. That simply means, Latinos have higher rates of heart disease. But tobacco isn’t the only reason.
Obesity, diabetes and lack of physical activity are also major factors in Latino heart health. The American Heart Association says nearly half of all Latinos have high cholesterol and one in five has heart disease. But studies indicate that an improved diet and physical exercise can reverse this trend.
Every day at Denver’s Clinica Tepeyac, Dr. Miriam Garcia sees patients who are at risk of heart disease, many also dealing with early signs of diabetes or already years into living with it. “Sadly, they’ve usually gotten the disease because of how they’re living or what they’re eating.” Diabetes, she tells them, is just the beginning of their health problems if they don’t make changes.
Beside diabetes contributing to heart disease, it can also hasten stroke, kidney problems, compromise eyesight and hearing, and, with some individuals, also lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s.
“I have a computer lecture and I also show them images of what can happen if you’re obese,” she says from her north Denver lab. “I show them pictures of blocked arteries and what they can cause.” She tries to be as honest as she can in counselling them. But her bottom line does not change; to prevent more serious health problems they have to change their diet and lifestyle.
“Let’s cut down on red meat,” is her first piece of advice. She also tells patients to read labels as well as the information she provides them on how to improve their health. Garcia also has special advice to immigrants, a group she identifies with because she also was born in Mexico. “I can tell them, ‘if you’re eating three tortillas a day, instead of adding pork or beef, eat turkey or stuff it with lettuce and tomato.’”
At Pueblo’s Parkview Medical Center, Dietician and Nutrition Clinician Missy Dunnahoo sits down with patients and finds first out what they eat. “We’re not trying to revamp everything but just trying to insert a few changes.” She tells them for a healthy heart, start by frying less and baking, broiling or steaming, more. She also recommends they add more salmon, tuna and even sardines to their diets.
She also schools them in recognizing what trans-fats and saturated fats are. To recognize them, she tells them they’re the kinds of fats you can see in the marbling in a cut of steak or the white stuff you see in bacon, which can be up to 98 percent pure fat. These fats also come in butter and scores of other products.
“We also talk about labels,” says Dunnahoo. “You can eat trans-fats but you have to set limits.” It can be a challenge, she admits. “You shouldn’t eat more than 17 Cheez-It crackers. But most of us don’t stop there.”
Heart health is something Keller, Garcia and Dunnahoo all believe people can improve upon without having to dramatically change their lifestyle. If you want to keep your heart pumping 100,000 times a day, they say, you can. You simply have to love yourself enough to do it. And with February being National Heart Month, this might be the perfect time to begin.