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Heart Health Month: Know your family history, change your future

Dr. Terry Adirim, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Health Services Policy and Oversight Dr. Terry Adirim, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Health Services Policy and Oversight

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I never knew my paternal grandfather. He was a smoker who didn’t pay attention to his heart’s health. He died in his 50s, as did his son, my uncle. But my father lived well into his late 70s. He understood what family history told him about his ticker and decided to take charge by eating right, watching his weight and remaining physically active his entire life. It probably gave him another 20-25 years with our family. He outran any genetic predisposition to heart disease. As we celebrate Heart Health month in February, let’s talk about what you can do to make sure you’re around for your family for many years to come.

First of all, know your risk factors. If you have a family history of heart disease, there’s a chance it could be passed along to you. Talk with those older members of your family to find out if there’s an aunt or uncle or grandparent who may have died young because of heart issues. Your race or ethnic group can affect your risk; African-Americans are disproportionately affected by heart disease. Recognize the classic warnings signs: pressure in the chest (like someone sitting on you), shortness of breath and pain radiating down your left arm. For women, symptoms might be more subtle and could include nausea, shortness of breath and pain in the jaw without pain in the chest. Many women, as family caretakers, might try to ignore these symptoms, brushing them off as not serious. The first steps to preventing heart disease include knowing your history, your risk and the warning signs.

While people in uniform get regular check-ups that should catch most issues early, family members and retirees also should schedule a visit with their doctor and have weight and blood pressure checked once a year. Additionally, cholesterol and lipid levels should be checked every five years for anyone over the age of 20, and more often for those at high risk. Check out TRICARE’s Preventive Services webpage to see what you’re eligible for.

Family history and race don’t have to paint a picture of gloom. Prevention is key. Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and avoid foods high in unsaturated fats. It isn’t necessary to deprive yourself of every tasty treat. Just cut back on the sugars and bad fats and reduce your salt intake where you can. A proper amount of exercise is really important. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day (for children, at least an hour a day is recommended). If you’re not big on team sports, or your child isn’t, don’t worry! There are plenty of other outlets to make sure you have enough activity to keep your heart healthy. And make sure you follow your doctor’s recommendations. If you’re prescribed medication to help control some of your risk factors, take it as ordered.

Another detriment to your good heart health is smoking. It damages your heart and lungs and increases your chances of stroke, heart disease and various cancers throughout the body. There’s absolutely no benefit to using tobacco in any form. If you don’t use tobacco now, don’t start! If you want to quit, the Military Health System’s UCanQuit2.org website has resources and support to help you kick the habit.

Most of all, don’t feel alone in your efforts to have a healthy heart. There are plenty of resources to get you on the path to keeping that ticker ticking along as it should. More information is available on Health.mil’s Heart Health page.

While he didn’t live as long as I would have liked, I’m grateful for the years I did get to spend with my father. He knew he was at risk for heart disease, and he did something about it. Think about the loved ones in your life, and decide to make healthy heart decisions for a long life to come.

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