Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 4:03 PM on Thursday, March 3, 2011

A healthy heart is your choice

By Lindsay Johnson
Staff Writer

Not many things hurt more than a broken heart.

It's a common tragedy. Women and men, young and old can be stricken by heart disease.

The Center for Disease Control says that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.

Fortunately, science shows that heartbreak is almost entirely preventable. In life, as in love, lifestyle choices make a difference.

February was American Heart Month. In celebration and recognition, South Peninsula Hospital offered heart health screenings at a reduced rate and also brought one of the state's leading cardiologists to give a presentation on the topic. Dr. George Rhyneer founded the Alaska Cardiac Institute in Anchorage. Now retired, he offers twice-monthly second opinion clinics in Homer.

To a roomful of 40 people at the SPH training center last Wednesday, Rhyneer described the heart's function, potential problems and how to keep it ticking.

The heart is a pump made of muscle that moves blood through the body. Blood does things like carry oxygen and nutrients, help regulate temperature, close injuries with clots and carry away waste and dangerous cells.

The muscle pump has valves and chambers; supply, exhaust and return hoses; and is automatically controlled by electrical ignition, nerves and hormones.

When one of these parts is compromised, the heart malfunctions. A heart malfunction, be it major or minor, is known as heart failure.

When the heart fails, the body doesn't get a normal supply of blood, which causes pain, fatigue, and eventually swelling, breathlessness and failure of other organs.

Dr. Rhyneer said that while the heart can malfunction in many ways, the most common forms of failure are heart attack, damaged valves, damaged heart muscle from high blood pressure and heart fatigue from elevated rate over an extended period of time.

The pump won't work if it loses its prime, and that is what happens in most cases of heart failure. A heart attack, or "myocardial infarction," occurs when the supply hoses, coronary arteries, become narrower than normal. The coronary arteries can be plugged or constricted by buildup of cholesterol in the artery lining or inner surface.

Valves can be damaged or fail by physical injury (impact), chemical (poison like alcohol) or disease (bacterial infection).

High blood pressure, or "hypertension," puts excessive force on the heart, which simply wears it out.

A rapid, irregular or quivering heartbeat is a result of the heart's electrical ignition switch — the signal that causes it to contract — malfunctioning. This "atrial fibrillation" increases the workload on the heart to a level that can't be sustained for a very long time.

Much is still unknown about why heart problems develop. There are certainly genetic factors that make it more challenging for some folks to achieve or maintain excellent heart health. Rhyneer said it is difficult to scientifically reproduce or quantify factors that contribute to heart failure, but simply living in an affluent society puts Americans at higher risk. Primitive people have significantly fewer heart problems for reasons both known, such as more exercise and simpler diets, and unknown.

Direct correlations between cause and effect are hard to prove, but studies have repeatedly identified certain risk factors.

"Level of LDL (low-density lipid, the "bad" kind of cholesterol) has something to do with it," Rhyneer said.

Best ways to prevent heart failure:

Don't eat a lot of sodium or saturated fat.

Get aerobic exercise regularly.

Don't smoke.

Manage diabetes.

Don't stress.

Also, high blood pressure, smoking, being male, getting old, diabetes, eating a diet high in saturated fats or sodium, being overweight and being stressed seem to contribute to heart failure.

It's safe to bet that you are at risk of heart failure if you live in the United States.

There are many tests to measure cardiac health, Rhyneer said, but testing alone won't solve a problem. Drugs are often prescribed to lower risk factors, though they can be more expensive and less effective than lifestyle changes.

"Prevention activity is at least if not more powerful than taking cholesterol-lowering medicine," Rhyneer said.

Listening to and caring for your body is the best thing you can do. The big prevention strategies are diet, exercise, not smoking, managing weight and diabetes.

"Food is medicine. It's one of the major contributors to good health," said SPH Health Educator Mary Fries.

Sodium and saturated fat are the most dangerous substances to the health of your coronary arteries, causing stiffness, hypertension and blockages. Unfortunately, sodium and saturated fat are two of the most common substances in processed food. Eating more whole grains, plants, lean meats and dairy will naturally reduce the amount of these substances in your body.

"Eat whole plants as grown," recommends Judith James, instructor of the Homer Coronary Health Improvement Project (see related story).

Every meal, for better or worse, makes a difference.

Exercise solves most health problems, especially heart-related ailments. Doing even a few minutes of aerobic exercise every day will increase your heart and overall health. Rhyneer said you cannot wear your heart out by exercising.

Weight is related to diet and exercise, but is a distinct consideration. An overweight body has to work harder to circulate blood than a normal size, and studies show that an overweight person's arteries are stiffer.

Smoking is another stressor.

"If you're smoking, stop; that's the No. 1 thing you can do to reduce your risk of heart attack," James said.

Heart disease may be common, but it is not inevitable.

There are a multitude of resources for becoming and being healthy in Homer, but only you can prevent heartbreak.

Community resources:

South Peninsula Hospital (education, testing, medical services)

Support groups (weight watchers, diabetes self-management, winter wellness winners)

Centers of activity (Bay Club, High School, yoga studios, ski trails, sidewalks, hills)

The great outdoors

Produce aisle and farmers market

Music and arts