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Three Heart-Healthy Makeovers

Can you really improve your heart health and reduce your risk for cardiac disease?

A Cardiac Nurse Nurtures Her Own Heart Health

Carolyn Welsh knows heart disease. In fact, she lives heart disease day in and day out as a cardiac nurse supervisor at St. Vincent Heart Center of Indiana in Indianapolis. Treating thousands of people who have been affected by heart disease over four decades, it never occurred to her that she herself was at risk.

"This all happened when I was 55," says Welsh, now 63. "I was right on target with my blood pressure and cholesterol, and my weight was 163 pounds, but I'm 5 feet 6 inches, and I felt comfortable there."

Estrogen and heart disease

Welsh had three things working against her, though: her age, stress, and a hysterectomy (which often includes removal of estrogen-producing ovaries) she'd had almost 12 years prior, meaning the protective effects of natural estrogen were long gone. Estrogen, which binds to receptors in the blood vessels of the heart and as a result helps them stay elastic, may play a part in keeping the cardiovascular system healthy. Its binding action also releases nitric oxide, which helps maintain smooth muscle relaxation in blood vessels, promotes cell growth and repair, and prevents clot formation.

"After about 10 years, the loss of estrogen can accelerate the process of cardiovascular disease and put a woman at higher risk," says cardiologist Stevens.

Having gone through the hysterectomy more than 10 years ago, Welsh was at the tipping point. What pushed her over the edge was some tragic news: While working one evening at the hospital, she learned that her son's unborn child had died during the eighth month of pregnancy, and she was totally distraught.

"Two hours later, I had the most profound and excruciating chest pain," says Welsh. "Immediately they hooked me up to an EKG, which showed signs of a heart attack. Twenty minutes later I was in the heart catheter lab, where they found an artery that had dissected from my heart." Her physicians eventually determined that built-up plaque in her artery caused the heart attack, which may have been brought on by stress.

Stress and heart disease

"Stress can play a detrimental role in heart health," says Stevens. "It causes adrenaline to be released from the adrenal glands, which can create an unstable state in your body and is a significant factor in causing plaque to become unstable and crack, which could cause a heart attack."

Welsh has recovered from her heart attack, but she is fully aware of her risk. With long-term heart health in mind, she has a three-pronged approach to taking care of herself: After the heart attack, she spent several weeks in cardio rehab and then joined a gym, focusing on strength training. Her diet is loaded with fruits and veggies and lots of water. And, to lower her stress levels, she walks, reads, and goes to church.

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