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Get the facts during American Heart Month
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Dr. Vanessa J. Lucarella
CLEARWATER – February is American Heart Month, and doctors with Morton Plant Hospital urge people to get the facts and know their risk status.

“American Heart Month is crucial for educating the public about the signs and symptoms of heart disease, to allow people to assess the risk factors and seek appropriate help if they recognize any symptoms or risks because we know that early intervention is key in saving people from heart attacks,” said Dr. Vanessa J. Lucarella, director of cardiac rehabilitation at Morton Plant Hospital and is also with the Clearwater Cardiovascular Consultants.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, with about 600,000 people dying in the U.S. each year from heart disease, or one in every four deaths, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Often, women think heart disease is a “man’s disease” and do not think they are at risk for it, Lucarella said. However, it tops the charts, with 24 percent of deaths in women being from heart disease, followed by cancer at 22.2 percent.

“A lot of women think heart disease is limited to the adult, overweight male smoker, when in fact it’s the leading cause of death in women,” Lucarella said. Greater than 550,000 women die of heart disease, which far exceeds the death rate due to lung and breast cancer, which is about 233,000.”

In men, 25.2 percent die from heart disease, followed by 24.4 of cancer. But the good news as that for both men and women, most of the risk factors are reversible, Lucarella said.

Although increased age and unlucky genes do contribute to one’s risk for cardiac disease, the most significant factors are blood pressure, blood sugar, lack of aerobic exercise, smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity and abdominal girth, Lucarella said. And all of these can be changed.

In regards to smoking, even if someone has smoked for years, Lucarella said, after quitting for two years, one’s smoking-related heart disease risk goes back to the same amount as a non-smoker. Smoking can still cause long-term lung disease, but the risk for cardiac health can be wiped clean.

People should also pay attention when they go to the doctor and if they are borderline at-risk in any area, make active lifestyle changes to fix the problem before it gets worse, she said.

“Know your numbers,” Lucarella said. “You can’t be complacent about going to a physician and being told, ‘Oh, your blood pressure is a little high,’ and then not do anything proactive to address and correct it. … For example, your blood pressure should ideally be 120/80. If your blood pressure is 140/90, a physician might say, ‘Well, did you have coffee before your visit?’ and the patient dismisses it. The patient needs to be obliged to come back without the caffeine on board and ensure their blood pressure is meeting its goal.”

The same goes for all the key numbers.

The people the most at risk are men over 65 and post-menopausal women, Lucarella said. For people who make it to age 40, the lifetime risk for coronary disease is 49 percent for men and 32 percent for women, she said.

There are many things people can do to get healthier hearts, Lucarella said.

“The best and most simple thing that families can do is really take a close look at what’s in their refrigerator,” Lucarella said. “The best heart-healthy diet concentrates mainly on fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid excessive cheese and dairy, which are very high in fat. … Use lean fat protein choices like chicken and fish – ideally having fish three times a week. Make sure the family is making exercise a part of their life as a fun family activity. Everyone going out bike riding after dinner or walking. At least 30- to 45-minutes a day of aerobic activity.”

Foods high in antioxidants are also good choices, she said. Oatmeal with berries or a high fiber cereal with berries is a good choice in the morning, and it is important to reduce one’s refined sugar and flour intake.

What makes heart disease even more dangerous in women is that the warning signs are subtler, Lucarella said.

“In men, it’s usually the crushing chest pain and pain radiating into the jaw or arm as a mark of heart disease,” Lucarella said. “But in women, the symptoms are much more subtle. There may be exertion fatigue or shortness of breath.”

This is why it is key to follow through with seeking medical attention and taking early action to lower one’s risk. But if anyone is experiencing exertion-mediated chest pressure radiating into the arm, jaw or scapula area, constant chest pain, shortness of breath or fatigue, heart palpitations or a racing heartbeat at a low workload it is crucial to call an ambulance immediately, Lucarella said.

“Studies have shown that if you’re in the hospital within an hour after the onset of symptoms, you’re far more likely to benefit from the tools we have, like acute balloon angioplasty or stents or emergency bypasses,” Lucarella said. “If you get there early, your heart muscle doesn’t have time to deteriorate from the loss of blood flow from the heart attack. The most important thing is you don’t try to deal with it yourself.”

Too many people ignore the signs or want to drive themselves to the hospital, but that can lead to death, she said.

Lucarella encourages people to take charge of their health. Reduce their body fat, because people with large bellies of a girth over 35 inches and increased adipose tissue are more at risk. Have a body mass index of less than 25. Keep one’s total cholesterol at 200 or less and LDL cholesterol at 100 or less. Maintain blood pressure at 120/80 or less. Keep blood sugar at 100 or less, eat healthy foods and get regular exercise, and you will be on your way to a long and healthy life.

Know your numbers

Stay within the following numbers to protect yourself from heart disease:

• Cholesterol – 200 or less

• LDL cholesterol – 100 or less

• Body mass index – Less than 25

• Blood pressure – 120/80 or less

• Blood sugar – Less than 100

• Abdominal girth – 35 inches or less
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