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Heart healthy smart at any age

Mark Olson (left), Vicki Rivkin, Robert Rivkin, Dr. John Wheeler and AmandaJean Beaulieu from Minnesota joined more than 300 American Heart Association volunteers in Washington, D.C., April 9 to lobby against cuts to the National Institute of Health and heart-health programs.

Former Red Wing resident AmandaJean Beaulieu got involved with the American Heart Association after her father developed a heart condition while she was in college.

But she never thought she would be a patient of one of the very diseases she learned so much about.

While driving to work in October 2009, Beaulieu -- just five days from her 27th birthday -- started to feel a pain in her chest.

"Being part of the Heart Association, I knew something was wrong," Beaulieu said.

When it grew hard to breathe and her left arm became numb, she decided to turn her car around and take herself to the hospital.

After a number of tests, doctors found she had suffered a stroke brought on by a blood clot in her lung, also called a pulmonary embolism.

"I always say I received the best birthday gift that year," Beaulieu said. "I got a second chance at life."

Since her pulmonary embolism, Beaulieu, now 30, has spent the past four years supporting stroke awareness, including teaming up with the American Heart Association's You're the Cure program to advocate for policy on heart health.

She recently travelled to Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers and discuss the importance of funding the National Institute of Health, or NIH, and heart disease awareness programs.

"The main reason we went to D.C. was because of a $1.5 billion cut in funding being proposed for the NIH," Beaulieu said. The cuts are part of the $1 trillion federal sequester that went into effect March 1.

Beaulieu and a team of American Heart Association volunteers from Minnesota, which included former Prince drummer and heart attack survivor Robert 'Bobby Z' Rivkin, met with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and congressional staffers at a state lobby day April 9.

"It was very productive," Beaulieu said. "Seeing how supportive legislators were was very humbling. They support research that saved my life and will save potential lives in the future."

One of the programs Beaulieu and the You're the Cure volunteers discussed with representatives was the Million Hearts initiative.

Beaulieu said she got involved with Million Hearts after it was started in 2011. Its mission is to prevent 1 million heart attacks and strokes in the U.S. over the next five years.

Million Hearts provides the following steps for people to follow in order to achieve its goal:

Understand the risk

The first step to preventing heart attacks and strokes is to understand symptoms of heart disease and its underlying causes.

"It's very important to be aware of the warning signs," Beaulieu said. "If you have a stroke or a heart attack, every minute and second counts."

Many of the most common risk factors are asymptomatic, and include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking and obesity, according to the Million Hearts website. Controlling these factors can reduce heart disease and stroke risk by as much as 80 percent.

Stay active

Obesity can greatly increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, and Million Hearts urges Americans to stay healthy by exercising 30 minutes several days a week.

Beaulieu said staying active doesn't necessarily mean going to the gym every day. In her case, she said she likes to take her dog on a 30-minute-to-hour-long walk each day.

Another example workout plan is a brisk 10-minute walk three times a day, five days a week, Million Hearts says.

It is important to encourage family members to stay active as well, especially children, Beaulieu said.

Know your ABCS

Million Hearts has identified four key areas for people to be aware of when talking with their health care provider. They are:

• Appropriate aspirin therapy for those who need it

• Blood pressure control

• Cholesterol management

• Smoking cessation

High blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking are among the leading causes of heart disease and stroke, Million Hearts says.

Stay strong

Diet has a big impact on heart health. Million Hearts recommends eating fresh fruits and vegetables while avoiding foods high in sodium, saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol.

"I'm extremely more conscious of what I eat now," said Beaulieu, adding that she eats mostly organic, low sodium foods and stays clear of processed meals.

Take control

Million Hearts says Americans should talk with their doctors about medication and treatment options to help prevent heart disease.

"It's important to go see a doctor and get your blood pressure checked," Beaulieu said. If it is determined to the high, people can then work with their doctor to take steps to improve heart health.

"If people think this will never happen to them, they should think again," she said. "I was in the same shoes."

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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