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National Heart Month is good time for healthy life changes

February is National Heart Month — a good time to make dietary changes, reduce stress and start exercising.

"American Heart Month is a designation in February aimed at increasing awareness that heart disease is the nation's No. 1 killer," said Annette Fisher, senior director of marketing and communications for the American Heart Association. "Each year, one in three women die of heart disease and stroke. Feb. 6 is National Wear Red Day. This campaign is a national movement for women to raise awareness about heart disease as the nation's No. 1 killer."

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Dr. Robert Ricketts, a cardiologist at Advanced Cardiology of Carroll County, said exercise is essential for heart health.

"Exercise, exercise and more exercise [are important]," he said. "Exercise leads to weight control and control of your blood sugar. Also, try to cut sugar and unnecessary fat out of the diet. We used to want to get rid of all the fats but now we know there are good fats like olive oil and fish oil."

As far as eating right, Ricketts recommended the Mediterranean diet.

The Mediterranean diet is more a way of eating than a traditional diet plan. The diet, which features foods generally eaten in Greece, Spain, southern Italy and France, emphasizes eating fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, high-fiber breads, whole grains, nuts and olive oil. Meat, cheese and sweets are very limited, while foods rich in monounsaturated fats, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids are recommended.

"Basically, if it doesn't swim or it doesn't fly, don't eat it," Ricketts said of meat in the diet.

Though preventing cardiac episodes through proper diet and exercise is essential, it's also important to be aware of the signs of a heart attack so it can be addressed quickly.

"The typical symptoms are a heaviness in the chest, rather than a sharp pain," said Dr. Radhika Kuna, a cardiologist with Carroll Health Group in Westminster. "Other common symptoms are shortness of breath with or without discomfort. Some other types of discomfort are in arm or upper back. Other symptoms include lightheadedness, nausea, sweatiness or indigestion."

According to Ricketts, women in particular have to be on their toes to recognize the signs of a heart attack.

"Women have less chest pressure, more pain near the left shoulder and the trapezius muscle — the muscle that runs from neck to shoulder — and pain between the shoulder blades," he said, noting that heart disease is the number one killer of women. "Early on, men have [heart disease] more than women but when they get past age 55 or 60 women actually surpass men in heart disease. The average woman is still 22 times more likely to die of heart disease than breast cancer."

Ellen Holland, of Union Mills, had a heart attack in September 2014 at the age of 75. She was awaiting surgery for her back and was on a lot of medication for back pain at the time.

"I never had any big pains in my chest," Holland said. "For three or four weeks whenever I did anything strenuous my arms would feel achy, but not real bad and it would always go away. Then one night I got real tired. I was so tired, I told my son I was going to bed even though it was only 8:30 [p.m.]. Both my arms started aching and my back pain got bad. I had pain in my collarbone, neck and jaw, and I knew something wasn't right."

Holland said her son called an ambulance. Carroll Hospital Center had her transported to University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore where they found three blockages in her heart and repaired them.

Holland said it's very important to listen to your body.

"Be very aware of what is happening to you that is different," she said. "I am old school. I kept thinking it was going to get better. I wish I'd done something earlier. Pay attention. Your body tells you when something wrong is going on."

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Jon McConnell, of Finksburg, had open-heart surgery in April at the age of 52. He said he was in good health and exercised regularly by running four dogs in agility classes and competitions. He said he felt his first symptoms while running with a dog in a class.

"It felt like I was breathing cold air into my lungs but it wasn't cold outside," he said.

When that cold-air feeling came back two days later, McConnell headed to Dr. Matthew Baron at the Billingslea Medical Building in Westminster. Walking up the steps in the parking garage, he said, he felt cold and clammy.

McConnell said Baron did an electrocardiogram — EKG — in the office that showed he was having a heart attack. He was given a nitroglycerin pill and four baby aspirins, hooked him up to oxygen and took him next door to the emergency room at Carroll Hospital Center, where a blood test showed he had elevated heart enzymes. High levels of cardiac enzymes often signal some type of damage to the heart.

"The funny thing [Dr. Selsky in the emergency room] told me is that I was a five-times loser. I am a male. I was over 50. I have high blood pressure and I had a brother and a father who both have had heart issues," McConnell said.

Kuna said a person's risk for heart problems is increased if family members have also suffered from such issues.

"It hasn't been completely figured out yet, but there is a role with genetics," she said. "If other family members — particularly parents or siblings — have had heart problems before the age of 55, it increases your risk."

The hospital had him transported McConnell to University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center in Baltimore where they found six blockages during a catheterization procedure — too many to repair with stents. On April 14, Dr. Stewart Finney performed a six-hour open-heart surgery.

McConnell was home after eight days in the hospital and back to work five weeks after surgery, amazing his doctors, therapists and family. He said he is on a heart healthy diet now and has a strong heart.

"I eat a lot less meat," he said. "I've increased fish and I don't eat much red meat at all. I've increased eating beans and salads. I'm supposed to eat three ounces of meat or less at a meal. I don't have doughnuts or that kind of stuff anymore like I used to and hardly any fast food, and I've cut back on candy and chocolate. I am trying to be more regulated with my walking."

McConnell said he doesn't worry about his heart, but he urges others to learn from his and others' experiences.

"Now I have clean pipes and I am on a ton of drugs," he said. "Listen to your body for symptoms. The ladies where I had rehab have a million stories about people not paying attention to their symptoms."

Kuna said that with the proper care of your body, the risk of heart disease can be diminished.

"It is important to emphasize that heart disease is still largely preventable," she said. "Simple things like exercise, a healthy diet, regular medical follow-ups, and of course not smoking, can go a very long way in preventing heart disease."

For more information:

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The American Heart Association website offers heart healthy tips on nutrition, physical activity, weight management, stress management, workplace wellness, smoking cessation, healthy habits, heart healthy recipes and more. Learn more online at http://www.heart.org.

Take an online heart check survey at "Life's Simple 7" at http://mylifecheck.heart.org.

Learn more about National Wear Day and find downloadable resources online at http://www.goredforwomen.org/wearredday.

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