Whether it be a chocolate heart, a broken heart, or someone having your heart, Valentine’s Day has the word heart on all of our lips. While the clichés can be cute or sickening, depending on your general outlook of the holiday, the word heart has become an identity for our personality in reference to our emotions.
Very few people will first think of the pump-like organ that regulates blood circulation from its home in our chests. Even fewer people give thought to the health of that organ, which is unfortunate since 1 in 4 deaths is caused by heart disease, making it the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. To refocus our awareness of the true definition of the word, February is American Heart Month.
You can be proactive about your heart health — and that of those you love.
There are different kinds of heart disease, which obviously means that there are different causes. While cardiovascular disease can refer to different heart or blood vessel problems, the definition is widely used in reference to damage done by a buildup of fatty plaques in your arteries. As that buildup thickens, the walls of the arteries harden, which obstructs blood from being distributed to your organs.
This process is called atherosclerosis, but we know it as coronary artery disease. While some heart conditions can be due to heart defects that you may have been born with, atherosclerosis is the most common cause of cardiovascular disease and is caused predominantly by correctable problems: obesity, lack of exercise, an unhealthy diet, and smoking.
Unfortunately, the symptoms of heart issues often do not appear gradually, like many diseases. A heart attack may be the first sign you ever have that something is awry.
Ten years ago, I was tweezing my eyebrows at the tiny vanity in the bathroom of the apartment I shared with my mom. We were getting ready to go to breakfast and she had always instilled in me that I had to get ready to go out like I was going to meet my future husband that day. Well, that or Justin Timberlake, whichever she felt would motivate me more.
I heard a shrill, almost inhuman, cry from her room, and my hand jerked pulling out an entire patch from my eyebrow. I ran in to see her sitting on the side of her bed, shaking. I sat down beside her and asked if she was OK; she told me she had just had a sharp pain shoot through her chest, but she was fine now. I put my hand on hers in an attempt to comfort her, but realized that her clammy skin was drenched in sweat. As I looked up to make eye contact with her, I could see that she was panting and her eyes were having trouble focusing. I moved my fingers to her wrist and checked her pulse. I didn’t have to hold my fingers there for the entire 15 seconds or bother with math to realize that her heart was racing.
After muttering a string of obscenities, I shuffled through the only drawer in the bathroom that was to the brim with make-up, medicine, and pregnancy tests. I fished out a near-empty bottle of aspirin and poured two in my hand for her, trying to remember if she had ever specified the dosage when she had told me about it preventing a heart attack.
When I returned, she had grabbed a trash can and was clutching it to her, heaving a little like she needed to throw up. I handed her the pills and a nearby mug that was about half full of water. I told her I was calling 911, which of course she proclaimed she didn’t need (like any mother does). I may have been a tender 22, but having a nurse for a mom, I knew that sweating, nausea, chest pain, trouble breathing, and an increased heart rate were telltale signs of a heart attack. For once, I didn’t feel guilty for defying her.
She was taken to the hospital, where they learned she needed emergency surgery to have a heart stint put in. For seven hours, I stayed on the phone with a close friend. When he had to go, I found myself bumming cigarettes off passersby outside. I wasn’t even a smoker. Finally, I wound up in the chapel. I dropped to my knees, truly humbled for the first time. I still remember the prayer all these years later, as I think it to be the most heartfelt of my life. With tears rolling down my face, I stared at the golden angel statue for a moment. Meekly, I laid out my plea. I wasn’t even a believer.
Apparently, the case passed in my favor, as she was soon in a bed in the coronary care unit, seemingly no worse for wear. We talked, watched part of Bad Boys II on the hospital television, and she was served an enormous salad with a layer of kiwis after we reminded the doctor that she had recently decided to go vegetarian, as I had done years ago.
When her medicine began to kick in and her eyes were struggling to stay open, she did the mom thing and told me that I should go rest. Because moms can never admit to being tired or hurt. I had never been so scared in my life, and I couldn’t sneak in enough kisses and professions of love. I confessed to her that the events of the day had made me utterly terrified to leave her side, in fear that I would never see her again. She reassured me that it was just an isolated incident and that I could help her make some life changes to make sure it didn’t happen again. She promised that I would see her again in the morning.
Morning never came. I will never forget jolting out of her bed where I had laid down to try to heed her advice. I will never forget the overwhelming instinct to be by her side. I know that reason and science say that you cannot have an effect before a cause, but the universe must have been celebrating backward day. Not two minutes later, I got the call to get to the hospital immediately. Within 15 minutes, I was being told that she was gone.
My mom was an active woman, on some days walking two miles one way to work. She displayed zero symptoms in her day-to-day life that she was anything but a sparkling example of radiant health for someone who was 60 years old. Then again, I was raised on fast food and Lunchables and saw absolutely nothing wrong with binge drinking on weekends. At the time, I had soda daily, usually fast food for dinner, and spent much of my spare time watching movies. So, in truth, I had no basis for judging someone as healthy or not.
We all should have regular check-ups by a qualified physician, but even more so as we age. Because my mom couldn’t afford health insurance despite working two jobs, she had not had a check-up in at least seven years.
The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests that cardiovascular screening tests begin at the age of 20. This helps to detect risk factors that, if ignored, could lead to heart-related health problems. If you are diagnosed with a cardiovascular condition or you or your family has a history of heart issues, you may require additional or more frequent testing. I learned after my mom’s death that heart issues were prevalent through both sides of her lineage. Her doctor was not shy to tell me that this didn’t have to happen. He also wasn’t shy in sending me a $52,000 bill.
When you first approach your health-care professional, the initial recommended tests are blood pressure, fasting lipoprotein profile (which tests your cholesterol and triglycerides), a simple body weight assessment, blood glucose, and an evaluation of your lifestyle.
Even if you have a family history of a disorder, you can sway the odds in your favor by making positive lifestyle choices and encouraging those you love to do the same. Learn to read nutrition labels and experiment with new recipes so that you may control your intake of salt, trans fat, and saturated fat. Consider using spices to flavor your meals to avoid excess salt. Consume less cholesterol and saturated fat, which tend to be highest in meat and other animal products. Eliminate soda and other sweetened beverages as well as limiting caffeine and alcohol. Find an active hobby such as yoga or bike riding that you can enjoy regularly (the AHA suggests 30 minutes at least five days per week). Get help to quit if you are a smoker. Add more fruits and vegetables to your diet, especially ones high in fiber such as broccoli, peas, and avocado.
I became a holistic nutrition specialist and have been active in the movement to keep physical activity present in schools as my way of helping someone else avoid the fate of my mother and me. My heart broke when hers stopped in June of 2007. But I hope that I can encourage others to be proactive about their heart health and that of those who they love. With all of their healthy hearts.
If you’re interested in assessing your heart health, make it part of your annual exam when you schedule an appointment at your local Planned Parenthood Arizona health center. Planned Parenthood can help you quit smoking, test your cholesterol, blood glucose, and blood pressure, and refer you to a specialist if needed.
This post was written in memory of Donna Webster.