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This Friday, February 4th is National Wear Red Day -- the American Heart Association’s campaign to raise awareness about women’s risk of heart disease. It’s the perfect time to take an honest look at your habits and assess them. It’s no secret that we all believe we’re healthier than we really are. But the truth is, less than one percent of Americans meet the criteria for good health. And since heart disease often doesn’t show any symptoms until it causes a heart attack, it’s like playing Russian roulette every time you skip out on the gym or order a bacon cheeseburger and fries.
Claiming more lives than the next four causes of death combined, including all forms of cancer, heart diesease takes its victims at a rate of one every 39 seconds.
Despite its history of taking out more Americans than any other disease, heart disease enjoys a rather benign reputation. It isn’t feared the way swine flu, bird flu or even cancer is. It’s like that amiable sociopath who couldn’t possibly be dangerous. And that’s why it’s so deadly. Heart disease is, in many cases, a preventable disease, but most of us don’t do what we can to protect ourselves, like bumping up our exercise and vegetables or reducing our sugar and fat intake. Sure, family history can make us more susceptible to it, however our lifestyle choices trump genetic destiny.
According to Muin Khoury, MD., Ph.D., director of the National Office of Public Health Genomics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who I interviewed last year, when several family members have the same disease, it’s usually less about genes and more about shared lifestyle habits, like what you eat on a daily basis, how much exercise you get and what environmental toxins you’re exposed to.
Having one relative with heart disease doubles your risk of getting it. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, on the other hand, reduces your risk by 80 percent. So the odds are still in your favor.
My friend Andrea has a family history of diabetes, heart disease and stroke. So when, at the age of 37, she found out her cholesterol was skyrocketing, she decided to take action. By no means an unhealthy person, Andrea had a normal body mass index and had given up red meat ages ago. Her diet contained a lot of fish and salads, but also a lot of pizza and ice cream. Because of her family tree and recent cholesterol diagnosis, Andrea decided to visit a dietitian specializing in cardiology (many health insurance plans offer this, but don’t advertise it). The recommendation: no cheese, ice cream or other kinds of high-fat dairy, and lots of fiber. Andrea gave up dairy and switched to whole-grains, trading in regular pasta for whole-wheat, and rice pilaf for quinoa. She gave up all sweets, too, except for the occasional cup of sorbet. In just seven weeks, her total cholesterol fell 47 points, or 20 percent, from 229 to 182.
While we were shocked by how quickly her dietary changes impacted her health, physicians like Dean Ornish, M.D., founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, probably would not be. He was one of the first researchers to prove that heart disease could actually be reversed by adopting a healthy lifestyle.
So when you see a red dress this Friday, think about your own habits -- are you taking the steps to protect yourself from heart disease?