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Guest opinion: My heart wake-up call

Oni Butterfly

Over a year ago, I decided that since heart issues were in my family, I was getting up there in age and a dear friend had just had carotid artery surgery, it might be a good idea to check out my heart. I’ve been exercising four to five times a week, biking, cross-country skiing, walking the dog and such, and figured that I had taken fairly good care of my health. I’m a foodie, and wasn’t sure how that would figure into the outcome.

A local doctor ordered a 15-minute ultrasound test of my carotid arteries, on the sides of your neck. This test indicates whether there is blockage in the walls of these arteries and is called the “Carotid Intima-Media Thickness” (cIMT) test. It is a strong indicator of risk for heart attacks and stroke, and it also provides an estimate of your “arterial age.” It is rarely recommended as part of your physical exam.

The bad news: I had plaque build-up inside the walls of my carotid arteries. I guess I wasn’t surprised; my father died of a heart attack, and when I recently discussed my mom’s Alzheimer’s disease and her death with my sister, she reminded me that mom’s autopsy showed that she died from a heart attack.

I wasn’t ready for a plant-based diet, nor was I going to take a statin drug, so I ignored the doctor’s recommendations and went on my merry way until this past November, when it was time for another carotid artery scan. Ouch! This one found more blockage.

I gave in and bought the book that was suggested to me called “Beat the Heart Attack Gene,” by Dr. Bradley Bale and Many Doneen. My scientific background led me to attack the book from cover to cover. I identified all the tests that are not routinely prescribed by medical providers to figure out where I was with my heart health, and we had them done.

Bale/Doneen recommend screening for everyone older than 40 and for younger people with any of the red flags discussed below.

First and most important is looking in the right place, which is the arterial wall, not the arterial lumen (the open corridor through which the blood travels). Ninety-nine percent of plaque does not obstruct blood flow — and therefore cannot be detected with indirect screening techniques such as stress tests.

Secondly, it important to know how inflamed your arteries are. Heart attacks and most strokes are triggered when a diseased artery becomes so inflamed that it can no longer contain the plaque smoldering inside the vessel wall. Much like a volcano spewing molten lava, inflammation causes a breach in the vessel wall, leading to the creation of a clot that obstructs blood flow.

The tests to determine whether your arteries are inflamed are called “The Fire Panel.” They are a combination of blood and urine lab tests and cost just pennies; they are available through the Cleveland Heart Lab. Most are covered by insurance plans but doctors rarely use them. The details for each test are in the book.

What was so shocking to me was finding out that the tests our medical providers routinely use to determine whether we have “heart issues” are based on factors that don’t really tell whether you have a risk for heart attack or stroke. They use the Framingham Risk Factors that look at the patient’s age, gender, cholesterol level, blood pressure and smoking status. What they often fail to look at is excess weight/waist circumference, genetic factors, diabetes and family history.

Long and short: One of the greatest medical breakthroughs of the past decade is the identification of four specific genes that dramatically boost cardiovascular risk. Millions of Americans unknowingly carry these common genetic mutations and the cost for tests has plummeted. Yes, I did the tests and yes I have the “9P21 Heart Attack Gene.” What would I expect with both parents having heart issues? It certainly was my wakeup call.

One of the primary goals of Bale and Doneen and doctors they have trained is to detect disease before it becomes severe enough to spark a heart attack or stroke; then they offer a comprehensive heart attack and stroke prevention plan they’ve taught to hundreds of health-care providers all over the world, including some in the valley.

Here are a few red flags:

1. FAMILY HISTORY: Several large studies show that having a parent who suffered a heart attack or other cardiovascular event at a younger-than-usual age can double or even triple a person’s risk.

• Many studies show that heart attack and stroke patients have normal or even optimal cholesterol levels, yet still have potential deadly plaque in their arteries.

• Stroke is known as a “brain attack,” basically a heart attack that occurs in the brain. Stroke triggers are detailed in the book.

2. THE THREAT IN YOUR MOUTH: Periodontal disease, a bacterial infection of the gums, connective tissue and bone supporting the teeth can double or even triple the risk of a heart attack or stroke. The leading warning is bleeding gums and bad breath, or puffy or receding gums.

3. HIDDEN RISK FACTORS for Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) include:

• Waist Circumference: This is actually a better predictor of heart attack and stroke risk than weight or body mass index. Having a large waist and apple-shaped body boosts the threat of developing type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, sleep apnea and some forms of cancer.

• Lack of Sleep: Skimping increases the danger of dying from CVD. Latest research shows that people who average six hours of sleep a night have significantly higher levels of inflammatory markers than those who snooze for eight hours. Getting less than six hours of slumber more than quadruples risk for pre-diabetes.

Here’s my good news: I now know that I have the “heart attack gene.” I am now on a plant-based diet, I’ve dropped my cholesterol levels plus I’ve lost 14 pounds since late November (even with the holidays) and I feel fabulous.

It’s February and heart month. Please be “heart aware” and ask your doctor to prescribe the carotid artery scan for starters. You’ll be glad you did.

Oni Butterfly bought her Sage Canyon Ranch south of Silt in 1996 and lived there until moving to Carbondale in 2006. She has been business relations director for the Better Business Bureau since 1998.


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