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The heart of the matter

Trite but ubiquitous quotes abound this time of year gushing about hearts, love, and life. Truthfully, the human heart is the demise of most Americans.

February, with all of its candied roses, is a time when heart health awareness re-emerges. Cardiac disease remains the number one cause of death in the U.S. and many of its risk factors are associated with an even greater epidemic: obesity.

“The way heart disease develops is that there is a build up of hard plaque and soft plaque in the arteries that supply blood to the heart, it’s the soft plaque that ruptures and causes a heart attack,” Terri Merrit-Worden vice president of Wellspring, a division of Silverton Hospital, said. “This is built through poor diet, high lipids, and stress.”

More now than smoking, excess weight is this country’s number one health problem.

According to the CDC and the Oregon State Health Department, as of 2008, Oregon’s obesity rate is 24.2 percent.

“The leading risk factors for heart disease are high cholesterol, abnormal lipids, lack of physical activity and stress,” Merritt-Worden said. “The problem with obesity is it comes hand-in-hand with all of the other risk factors.”

The epidemic is also spreading quickly in younger generations. Gaining extra weight at earlier ages can be detrimental to one’s longevity, according to the CDC:

“During their youth, obese children and adolescents are more likely to have risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease (such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and Type 2 diabetes) than are other children and adolescents.”

One mother, First Lady Michelle Obama, announced this January, that she is implementing an anti-obesity plan with city mayors, stating that nearly one-third of the nation’s children are overweight or obese.

“The level of obesity, especially of teenagers here in Woodburn is high. With an abnormal BMI they are starting to have a metabolic profile that suggest diabetes,” Merritt-Worden said.

Two points of Obama’s anti-obesity program rest on healthy school lunches, and similarly, access to affordable and healthy foods.

“Some of our most at risk communities don’t have the access they need to fruit and vegetables, so they eat a McDonald’s for a dollar,” Merritt-Worden said. “We’re not set up for success in a lot of places.”

In Marion and surrounding counties, Oregon State University extension faculty member Holly Berry, works within schools and families to educate about nutrition.

“I educate [elementary aged students] on healthy eating and the food pyramid,” she said. “A healthy recipe is given to them to take home and they’re given a sample beforehand.”

Like many parents, over the past five years of conducting this work, Berry has heard every excuse.

“We’re expanding their idea of what it good,” Berry said. “Our rule is: ‘You can’t say you don’t like it if you don’t try.”

Picky eaters aside, she makes it clear that changing people’s dietary habits is not an easy task.

“Food has become about so much more than nourishing our bodies,” Berry said. “Their tastes are entrenched in what their parents buy.”

Smoothies are one example of her culinary experiments. The children shouted out the first ingredient as sugar and thought her recipe wasn’t “sweet enough.”

The families she works with as part of this program are usually low-income and use food stamps.

“Many of them do buy for convenience which can often lead to purchases that are high fat, high salt, and high sugar items,” she said. “Some of them work two or three jobs, so this is what’s important.”

Berry’s work lies in showing them similarly easy options that are much healthier.

“They have to define it differently, re-think what that is,” Berry said. “Milk and low-sugar cereal is convenient; fresh fruits and vegetables can be more expensive, but there are affordable options in the frozen section.”

Changing the school’s options is a separate matter, however. Berry doesn’t work with the cafeteria and often encounters food related obstacles in the classrooms.

“It’s very difficult when right after me they have a birthday party and serve cupcakes or they’re having a candy sale fundraiser,” Berry said. “There can be mixed messages around food at school.”

Experts agree, though, that one of the most malleable changes a person can make is with their diet. Exercise is, of course, paramount to prevention plans too, but diet plays a large role in keeping cholesterol, glucose, and blood pressure levels within the AHA’s recommended guidelines.

These guidelines center around the notion that each person must eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains and at least two servings of fish per week. Choosing foods with less salt and added sugar are also primary principals.

The AHA also warns that people must know the state of their health and implement the lifestyle changes necessary to make improvements.

“In a recent survey of adult Americans, the association found 39 percent said they thought they had ideal heart health; however, 54 percent of those said a health professional had told them they had a risk factor for heart disease and/or needed to make a lifestyle change to improve their heart health. These findings indicate most people don’t associate important risk factors, such as poor diet and physical inactivity, with cardiovascular disease,” according to a Jan. 20 news release.

The message is getting across to some Oregonians, at least.

“We conducted a survey recently at schools to how our message is getting across, and 80 percent of parents responded that they are talking about the lessons they’ve learned,” Berry said.

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