Friday, February 29, 2008
Keeping your heart healthy at every age
By Val Willingham
As a certified EMS worker, Jeff Schaffer knows a lot about the heart. Based in Baltimore, Maryland, Schaffer travels with emergency crews from three states. He teaches CPR, gives lectures on heart health, and talks to school kids about firefighting and ambulance work. His father died from a heart attack at 61. So you would think when he began to have chest pains while teaching a CPR class, 15 years ago, Schaffer would have gone to the doctor. But he didn't. He ignored his own advice. Despite his vomiting and nausea, Schaffer admits, he was in denial. "I just blew it off and said it couldn't happen to me."
Schaffer finally went to the ER, but not until after having symptoms for two days. At 39, Schaffer was indeed having a heart attack. His doctors said he was lucky to be alive. The ironic part of this story is even though Schaffer knew all the symptoms of a cardiac event he never thought about his own heart. He didn't know his own blood pressure or cholesterol rate. He thought he was invincible until his doctor gave him the bad news. Schaffer said his triglycerides level was about 530 and his cholesterol at the time of his heart attack was 312. Both numbers were dangerously high.
And even though his story is hard to believe, heart specialists say it's typical. Doctors find most people in in their 30s never think about the possibility of having a heart attack. Most joke and say that's for old people. But statistics show 5 percent of those having heart attacks are under the age of 40. Cardiologists blame stressful lives, fast food and smoking. Also, in our 30s, hardening of the arteries begins. It's a slow process that increases your risk of heart attack over time.
A good indicator that plaque could be hardening your arteries is high levels of bad cholesterol - so watch your numbers, even in your younger years, including your blood pressure reading. Know the difference between LDL and HDL, the bad and good cholesterol. And pay attention to triglycerides. Doctors are finding a high triglyceride number is a precursor to poor heart health. Dr. Michael Miller, director of Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, notes, "If you have high LDL and high triglycerides, you appear to be at the highest risk of having a heart attack." In new research, Miller has found these bad cholesterol and triglycerides act like Bonnie and Clyde: Each alone can affect your heart in a bad way, but together, they're deadly.
Also, doctors will tell you, if you smoke, quit. It can make a huge difference in your heart health. A recent study showed smokers ages 35-39 had five times the risk for heart attacks than nonsmokers of the same age.
And know your family heart history. If one of your parents died at an early age from heart disease, start working with your doctor to keep your heart in good shape.
Putting on weight? As we age our metabolism naturally slows down. That can lead to weight gain, which can raise blood pressure and stress our circulation system.
Increase your exercise. Research shows that even 10 minutes a day can improve your cardiovascular fitness.
Today at 54, Schaffer feels better then he did in his 30s. He watches what he eats, takes medication, and closely watches his numbers. He knows he's lucky to be alive and he wants to stay that way. Because he knows if he doesn’t he could die at an early age.
How do you keep your heart healthy? Tell us. We'd like to hear about it.
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