Genes aren't destiny with heart health

Special to the Herald-LeaderFebruary 10, 2014 

Baptist Health, Mo Iman

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Coronary artery disease, which is blockage of heart arteries, causes heart attacks and death. Incidence is declining nationally, largely due to good medications and education. Unfortunately, we in Kentucky have not seen a similar trend, largely due to our family histories and lifestyle. We cannot choose our parents, but we can change how we choose to live. A famous heart specialist once said, "Our genes only load the gun, but our habits pull the trigger."

The key to preventing coronary artery disease is healthy eating and exercise. The importance of exercise — especially brisk walking, biking, swimming and running — about 30 minutes a day three to four times a week cannot be overstated.

Exercise goes hand in hand with good nutrition. Recently there has been a lot of hype about "super foods," but the key really lies in the simple foods we eat every day. It is not practical or necessary to change from our local dietary habits to more exotic diets like the Mediterranean or paleo diets overnight. It is more important to make small changes regularly and consistently.

Some examples of these minor changes would be switching to olive oil, increasing intake of locally grown produce, introducing legumes and beans into your diet, and eating more chicken or fish instead of red meat. Small changes with big results include baking or broiling instead of frying; reducing intake of carbonated drinks; increasing intake of water; and cutting, not eliminating, salt and sugar. Keeping a daily log of food and calories consumed might seem difficult initially, but it soon becomes routine and has a great effect on curtailing calories.

The warning signs of coronary artery disease are chest discomfort radiating to the arms or the jaw, shortness of breath, and indigestion unrelated to eating. These symptoms are notoriously subtle in women and are often missed, which might account for the fact that more women than men die of heart disease.

Once a person has been diagnosed with coronary disease, a cardiologist might recommend medications, stents or heart surgery. Not everyone with coronary artery disease needs stents or heart surgery. If in doubt, always get a second opinion as the treatment plan changes 30 percent of the time as shown by various studies.

Many risk factors for heart attacks also are responsible for strokes, cancers and other lethal diseases. In the quest to prevent coronary artery disease you also will reduce your risk of these other deadly illnesses. Eating well and exercising are keys to physical and emotional well-being.

Dr. Mo Imam, a cardiothoracic surgeon with Baptist Cardiothoracic Surgical Group, is surgical director of the Heart & Valve Center at Baptist Health Lexington.

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