Every year, heart disease is the leading cause of American fatalities according to the American Heart Association. It can affect anyone but there are several factors that can put someone at a higher risk. This year, Stephanie Green, Director of Medical Management at P3 Arizona, is sharing her personal experiences with managing heart disease and what she has learned during her journey.

When I was 38 years old, I was at home on a Sunday evening doing laundry and found it difficult to breathe.  I have a history of asthma, so I used my inhaler, but it wasn’t working. I called my PCP’s office and the after-hours doctor suggested I go to the emergency room. That night my journey with heart disease began. I was diagnosed with an arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat, heart valve disease, and high blood pressure. As an adopted child, I did not know my family history. A few years after my diagnosis, I met my birth family and learned that heart disease was prevalent among them. In fact, my birth mother passed-away from undiagnosed heart disease at 57 years old. That day I realized I needed to make serious changes in my life and turned to my Cardiologist and the American Heart Association for guidance. I’d like to share with you what I learned.

There are several factors that put you at increased risk for heart disease, some of them you can control, like my high blood pressure, and some of them you can’t, like my family history.

Some other risk factors include:

Risk factors you can control

• High blood pressure
• Smoking
• High cholesterol
• Inactive lifestyle
• Being overweight
• Diabetes

Risk factors you can’t control

• Advancing age
• Gender
• Family heart history
• Race
• Personal history of heart attack or stroke

Did you know even modest changes to your diet and lifestyle can improve your heart health and lower your risk by as much as 80 percent? I didn’t, but now I do.

It was easy to get overwhelmed with all the information being given to me. I decided to start small and started tracking my steps daily.  To develop my goal, I started tracking my normal daily step-count by wearing an inexpensive pedometer on my hip that I got from my local pharmacy.  I was walking about 3,500 steps daily.  I committed to increasing my daily step count to 5,000 then 7,500 and finally, 10,000.  Now, I consistently walk 10,000 steps daily and take leisurely bike rides whenever I can.

Like 65 percent of American adults, I was overweight.  At my heaviest, I was nearly 250 pounds! My commitment to being more active, the only initial change I made, resulted in me loosing almost 20 pounds, not needing to take as much medication, and I even saw improvement in my heart function at my next cardiology appointment. My cardiologist commented that by just adding those steps to my daily routine, I reduced my risk of complications from heart disease.

There are many ways activity improves your heart health, including:

• Improves blood circulation
• Keeps your weight under control
• Helps you quit smoking
• Improves cholesterol levels
• Prevents and manages high blood pressure
• Prevents bone loss
• Boosts energy level
• Helps manage stress
• Helps you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly
• Reduces coronary heart disease in women by 30-40 percent
• Reduces risk of stroke by 20 percent in moderately active people
• Delays and chronic illness and disease associated with aging

Juggling my family, education (I am in a doctoral program) and my career, I felt it was impossible to make lifestyle changes. Once I saw the impact activity made on my health, I made it a priority. After activity became a normal part of my daily routine, I started to focus on my nutrition.  Activity showed me I had the power to reduce my health risks and as a nurse, I knew a diet rich in a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats and whole grains was my best defense against worsening heart disease. For those who don’t already have heart disease, it is your first defense to protect your heart.

When I started setting nutritional goals for myself, I recruited the support of my family to make these changes with me.

We started small and maintained a consistent, 2,000 per day diet that included:

• Fruits and vegetables: At least 4.5 cups a day
• Fish (preferably oily fish, like salmon): At least two 3.5-ounce servings a week
• Fiber-rich whole grains: At least three 1-ounce servings a day
• Nuts, legumes and seeds: At least 4 servings a week, opting for unsalted varieties whenever possible

As a woman with known heart disease, I also followed other dietary measures:

• Sodium: Less than 1,500 mg a day
• Sugar-sweetened beverages: Aim to consume no more than 450 calories a week
• Processed meats: No more than two servings a week
• Saturated fat: Should comprise no more than 7 percent of your total calorie intake

I kept a food journal of everything I consumed, including beverages and snacks. I’m a very visual person and seeing it was motivational.  I downloaded an app to my smartphone, but if you’re not tech savvy, you can just keep a small notebook to hold yourself accountable. When I started tracking, I realized I ate too many carbohydrates, specifically sugar, and not enough protein nor vegetables. I would never have had that realization had I not been keeping track.  I quickly lost another 25 pounds. Of course, my husband lost much, much more weight than me.

Beyond diet and exercise there were a lot of other things associated to my heart disease diagnosis that no one really talked about. I felt guilty that I let myself fall ill.  I was such a strong person; I didn’t understand how I became so vulnerable. I felt victimized by heart disease. I felt helpless, like my fate had been sealed.

Through the American Heart Association, I found the advice below and began leaning on other women who were going through the same thing as me:

1. Drop the guilt.

Like many women, I always prided myself on being able to do it all. I never had to lean on anyone or ask for help.  If my heart disease diagnosis taught me nothing else, it taught me humility. I had to learn to put myself first, prioritize my health, both physical and mental, and be able to say “no.”

2. Realize that it’s okay to feel vulnerable.

I reached out to support groups in our community and built an online relationship with women with similar heart disease by volunteering with the American Heart Association. I had to accept that I wasn’t in control and that feeling scared, was normal.  Through their support and education, I was able to regain control and stop feeling like a victim.

3. Join support groups.

After I started building relationships with other heart disease survivors, I began to heal, physically and mentally. I connected to others through the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women Heart Match Program.

4. Believe in yourself.

My diagnosis led to feelings of depression, guilt, anger, and fear. I had to give myself time to cope, but after accepting my feelings and finding support, I was able to regain my confidence and know that I am in control. I believed in my ability to change my diet and activity habits to beat this disease, or at least keep it from worsening.

5. Make a pledge to Go Red and spread the word about heart health.

As a survivor, I am passionate about women’s heart health. I want to be sure other women are aware of their risk factors and are better positioned to spot symptoms and discuss them with their primary care provider.  Given the high fatality rate, I don’t want other women to pass-away young, not knowing they have heart disease like my birth mother. I want to tell my story because I am alive to share my experience and hope I can influence other women to be more aware of their heart health.  If you are interested in learning more about your heart health, please consider signing up for the American Heart Association’s My Life Check.