Welles: Get heart smart

A few days after the news of former President Clinton's bypass surgery, I felt myself getting seriously short of breath and unable to walk more than a few steps without stopping. I was attempting a hike in the Canadian mountains and figured that the altitude accounted for the new sensations.

Still, it made me think about getting a checkup sooner rather than later and gathering information on the silent killer called heart disease.

After all, Clinton was a federal employee, and at 58, he is only slightly older than the average federal employee. It was reported that his clogged arteries put him dangerously close to having a major heart attack. And he has seven of the nine risk factors — he is male, older than 50, has a family history of heart disease and has smoked (cigars). He also has a history of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and being overweight. The only two risk factors the former president doesn't have are diabetes and lack of exercise.

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of U.S. women. Coronary heart disease is a leading cause of premature, permanent disability among working adults, both men and women.

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, as you get older, your risk for developing coronary artery disease increases. In men, risk increases after age 45. In women, it increases after age 55. Office of Personnel Management statistics show that in 2002, 592,052 men older than 45 and 138,579 women older than 55 were part of the federal workforce.

Coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease, occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle become narrow and clogged by plaque buildup, slowing blood and oxygen flow to the heart. People affected often aren't aware of what's wrong or wait too long before getting help. Institute officials say the most common symptoms of coronary artery disease are:

  • Chest pain, chest discomfort or pain in one or both arms, the left shoulder, neck, jaw or back.
  • Shortness of breath.

Except for a family history of heart disease, most risk factors can be mitigated by:

  • Eating healthy to prevent or reduce high blood pressure and high cholesterol and maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Not smoking.
  • Exercising as directed by your doctor.
  • Losing weight if you are overweight or obese.
  • Reducing stress.

For some people, these changes may be the only treatment needed. For others, medications such as cholesterol-lowering drugs may be required in addition to lifestyle changes.

Many federal agencies have fitness centers, hold health fairs where feds can check their blood pressure and some agencies sponsor activities such as Weight Watchers programs. It might be worth your time to check out what's available, and of course, if you are joining a fitness program, check with your doctor first. Keeping heart healthy may be the most important way to get a life.

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.

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