Willie Kendal, a successful banker and deacon in his church, died suddenly from a heart attack at his home earlier this year while we were waiting to meet with him at his office. He was 52. The lives of too many African-American men are cut short each day by this preventable disease. While we are over concerned about violence, accidents, AIDS and cancer, cardiovascular disease, including heart attack, brain attack (stroke) and heart failure (weak heart muscle) is responsible for the demise of half of our grandparents. Unfortunately, all our families have tasted the bitter fruit of a loved one leaving too soon.
Imagine a group of us having a picnic lunch on the bank of a river when we look out and see babies floating in the water. I imagine some of us would jump in, rescue the babies and take heroic steps to revive them. More importantly, I would hope some of the really smart members of the group would run upstream to stop whoever is throwing babies off the bridge. The same should be true of cardiovascular disease. We must provide great care to those who already have it, but we must also teach and motivate those who are not yet affected to prevent disease as well as reduce individual risk factors.
It’s only a matter of time.
A risk factor is like running a stop sign. You may get away with it, but you unnecessarily increase your risk of an accident. A grandmother once told me she couldn’t buy her blood pressure pills because her granddaughter needed shoes. If you are unable to function, you will not be able to take care of people who depend on you. Even the heart pumps blood to itself before sending it to the rest of your body. If you have scarce resources, buy the pills instead of the shoes.
In the past, heart disease was viewed as unavoidable, but we can now shout from the rooftops that it is preventable. Dying from a heart attack or stroke is no longer a fact of life that we have to accept. Diabetes, heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, cholesterol and other chronic conditions consume too much of our health-care expenditures. Preventive care reduces needless suffering and premature death, improves the quality of care, enhances the quality of our lives and lowers costs. Yet, comparatively very little of our health-care dollars are spent on “prevention.”
By promoting our “Seven Steps to Good Health” to your loved ones, you can live with the confidence that heart disease will not interfere with the quality of their lives. Helping our grandparents and children live 10 more years will, however, depend on a radical shift toward prevention and public health. It is never too early or too late to adopt a healthy lifestyle. The earlier children adopt these steps, the greater their chances of living in good health to 100 years old. That is now a realistic goal.
Most people, even cardiologists, associate the heart with love, bravery, cowardly behavior and heartache. The function of the heart and blood vessels is really to deliver the oxygen and nutrients to each cell, pick up waste, cleanse and enrich the blood before sending it out again. This is a closed system that repeats itself about 70 times per minute, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year for our entire lives. Our heart never takes a break, pumping 2,000 gallons of blood per day.
Heart disease represents an “interference” with blood flow. This commonly takes the form of an obstruction such as atherosclerosis (gradual buildup of plaque in the blood vessels), a clot, hemorrhage, spasm, or blood that is either too thick or thin to be pumped properly. This can occur in the heart, in the brain or in an extremity like a toe or leg. When these parts of the body do not get enough blood, the cells simply starve to death.
Here are the Seven Steps to Good Health:
- Be spiritually active. Humans are spiritual beings. Meditation, prayers, joking and laughing, holding a grandchild, being in love and spending time with family and friends are uplifting and important for our spiritual development. We are almost required to feed our five senses–seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling–continually. Traveling, having adventures, visiting museums, star gazing, creating, listening to music or the rustle of leaves should be a part of every child’s experience. In addition, an important study from the University of Texas tells us that people who attend church regularly live seven to 14 years longer than those who do not.
- Take charge of your blood pressure. Despite steady progress over the past 33 years, uncontrolled high blood pressure is projected to increase by 60 percent over the next 20 years. Tell your doctor you want to keep your blood pressure as close to goal (120/80 mm Hg) as possible.
- Control your cholesterol. Keep your HDL (good cholesterol) high and your LDL (bad cholesterol) low. High cholesterol leads to plaque, which restricts the flow of blood. Diet, exercise, and statin therapy are the keys to maintaining healthy cholesterol levels.
- Track your blood sugar and maintain ideal weight. Obesity and diabetes track each other. As the rate of obesity goes up, so does diabetes. If you are overweight, you run a high risk of developing diabetes, which increases your risk of heart attacks, strokes, blindness, amputations and impotence. Why must sugar and fat accompany every expression of love and every celebration? Is it possible to have a birthday party, a wedding or an anniversary party without a cake? By reducing obesity, we are taking a swing at diabetes. Three out of four diabetics will die from heart disease and stroke.
- Enjoy regular exercise (30 minutes per day every day), follow a sensible diet and get a good night’s sleep. Move those muscles. Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, reduce fats and sugars, but most of all, eat less. If you don’t sleep well, get a sleep study and then follow your doctor’s advice. Sleep apnea, a significant contributor to hypertension and heart disease, is more common among those who are obese.
- Don’t smoke. Nobody argues with this anymore, not even smokers. Smoking constricts the arteries, increases carbon monoxide, lowers the good cholesterol and is the primary cause of lung cancer. Smoking is our most preventable cause of premature death.
- Access better health care, get a check-up and take your medication as prescribed. It is no longer acceptable for the most vulnerable among us to receive the worst care. Just because some of us are poor does not mean we should be relegated to poor care. All members of society deserve to receive effective and respectful health care. If you are dissatisfied with the care you are receiving, seek care elsewhere. More importantly, it does no good for you to be evaluated by a physician, have your condition diagnosed and medication prescribed if you do not then fill the prescription and take it as directed.
–B. Waine Kong, Ph.D., and Stephanie H. Kong, M.D.