Several years ago, my husband woke up with pain beneath his arms, as though he had “been on the parallel bars all night.” When the pain continued, we hurried to the emergency room where we discovered he’d suffered a heart attack overnight. Thankfully, he recovered, but it really jolted us. It was time to take a close look at our risk factors. Neither of us were overweight, and we weren’t smokers, but my husband had a stressful job, rarely exercised, and ate far too many fatty foods. I was doing better on the stress management and exercise front, but I did (and do) have one risk factor that he didn’t: Type 2 diabetes.
I’ve always known that people with diabetes have an increased risk for heart disease (high blood sugars can damage blood vessels and nerves in and around the heart), but honestly, until my husband’s experience, I hadn’t really been too worried about heart disease. I figured I was doing a pretty good job managing my risk: I was religious about seeing my doctors regularly, and I always kept a close watch on not only my A1C, but also my blood pressure and cholesterol (which can be indicators of heart problems).
But my husband’s experience challenged me to lower my risk even more. So, once we were over the shock of the heart attack and safely back home, both my husband and I made some changes. Among them:
- Cut out red meat – You don’t have to go this far, but ending our red meat consumption helped both of us become more conscious of what we eat. While we allow ourselves the occasional chicken meal, we mostly go for fish, tofu, egg whites and nuts for protein. We also try to steer clear of most other fatty foods.
- Increased our exercise – To make sure we stayed on an exercise program, we bought a pretty nice stationary bike, and vowed to make sure we weren’t going to let it become a clothes hanger. Jeff bikes 45 minutes every other day, while I go for 60-minute intervals on days I don’t take a weight lifting class. Having it nearby in our bedroom helps keep us honest.
- Cut down on stress – We try not to sweat the small stuff. As for the big stuff, we try to relax after work with a glass of red wine and take time for occasional slow walks around the neighborhood.
- Lose some weight – While neither of us were overweight, we each dropped about five to eight pounds. Extra pounds put stress on the heart, particularly belly fat. As someone who carries her extra weight around the middle, this really hit home with me.
- Take statins – While my husband takes statins as part of his heart healthy plan, I take one because my endocrinologist is interested in preventing any future problems. (Thanks to exercise, my ‘good’ cholesterol is off the charts.) For people over 40, this is something your doctor may recommend to lower any ‘bad’ cholesterol.
- Get my blood pressure checked regularly – Keeping blood pressure low is important, since high blood pressure can lead to heart attacks. Both of us have regular visits with our doctors (his cardiologist, my internist and endocrinologist) where we get checked. We also recently invested in matching Fit-bits which let’s me keep track of my resting heart rate.
Since that scary day, my husband’s health has been on an upward climb. He’s come home with a clean bill of health from the cardiologist. But I’ve learned not to take anything for granted. Aside from following the points above, I’ve educated myself in signs of a heart attack (different for women than men) and paid more attention to issues of heart disease. While it’s not something I want to go through, I want to be prepared for anything.