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A Heart Smart America

Lifestyle choices are much more powerful than genetic risk

Will our country ever be able to put an end to heart disease - the number one killer of men and women today?  With credit to public health accomplishments in hygiene, sanitation, and vaccines as well as the development of antibiotics, the top killers of the 20th century evolved from infectious diseases to chronic diseases. The next health transformation requires the help of not scientists, but the actions of every American - starting with our youth.

According to the CDC, heart disease is attributed to one of every four deaths in the U.S.  The good news is the age-adjusted mortality rate from cardiovascular disease is down since 1950.

The Right Path
"Cardiovascular disease deaths in the U.S. continued to drop from 2001 to 2011, by 30.8 percent. That's the good news," explained Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., R.D., immediate past chair of the AHA's nutrition committee, "But, while we have made good progress in reducing deaths, we're also seeing a rise in diabetes among children and childhood obesity rates remain stagnant. We must find ways to reverse these trends, or we risk losing ground."

Research has shown lifestyle choices are much more powerful than genetic risk, so it is essential to engage our youth in understanding and selecting healthy lifestyle behaviors. The American Heart Association (AHA) age-targeted heart disease prevention recommendations advise children eat healthy, which means limiting foods high in saturated fat, trans-fat, and sodium, beverages that are sugar-sweetened, and red meat. They should also get at least 60 minutes of exercise a day and work all major muscle groups at least twice a week.

Johnson referred to AHA Life's Simple Seven as an easy-to-follow guideline for everyone to improve heart health:

1) Manage blood pressure

2) Control cholesterol

3) Reduce blood sugar

4) Get active

5) Eat better

6) Lose weight

7) Stop smoking

The AHA has educational tools to help follow these steps and to conquer common pessimist thinking, such as 'eating healthy is too expensive' or 'I don't have enough time to exercise.'

SEE ALSO: Cardiac Complications in Long-Term Care

Halting Heart Disease
Some naysayers may also avoid changes thinking it is too late to do any good. Thirty-five years of research by Dr. Dean Ornish, Founder and President of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, has shown otherwise. In fact, Ornish has found comprehensive lifestyle choices can stop or even reverse the progression of heart disease. The lifestyle modification program for The Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease includes four main parts:

1.     A very low-fat whole foods diet.

2.     Moderate aerobic exercise.

3.     Stress management

4.     Support groups

Studies have shown many positive outcomes to the program, such as decreased coronary artery stenosis, 2.5 times fewer cardiac events, and improved quality of life - to name just a few. Ornish and Healthways have re-launched the program since Medicare and other commercial payers are now covering the program for those diagnosed with heart disease; some plans also cover the program for those at risk of a cardiac event. Patients can be referred to to complete a web form or call 1-877-888-3091 to talk to one of the health coaches trained in the program.

Taking Out Trans-Fat
About a quarter of America is already living a heart-healthy lifestyle, but is not always easy to be aware of or have access to the best food options, especially on-the-go. On June 15, the FDA declared partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the main source of trans-fat in processed foods, as being "not generally recognized as safe." Although many trans-fats have already been removed from food, this is projected to save thousands of additional lives. If hydrogenated fats are eliminated, it will make it easier for everyone to choose healthier food.

What are hydrogenated fats? They are a substitute for lard and butter; it is a vegetable oil that became hardened through treatment with hydrogen at high temperatures and pressures. High intake of trans-fats is associated with heart disease and leads to increase LDL, decrease HDL, stiffens arteries, causes inflammatory changes and also increases the risk for diabetes. They may still be used in some products, such as microwave popcorn, coffee creamers, and frozen pizzas. They may also be used in restaurants, such as fast-food restaurants where food is deep-fried (and of course, there are no labels to identify the ingredient).

The Next Paradigm
If heart disease alone was eliminated, it would be like saving the entire city population of Las Vegas - every year. Influence of lifestyle choices, the mecca of chronic disease, can potentially shrink numbers of not only heart disease, but four of the five top killers: cancer (#2), chronic lower respiratory disease (#3), and stroke (#5) - leaving unintentional injuries (#4).

America is getting heart smart. With the support of the government and the health care industry, it is time to continue to educate and empower our communities and youth, so together we can transform America's health from chronic disease to -- the next paradigm.

Daria Waszak teaches for an RN-BSN program and is currently pursuing her DNP. She has freelanced for a number of nursing publications, including ADVANCE and has 20 years of professional nursing experience.

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