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The Big Four "Widow Makers"

I can still see my dad's cardiologist (a doctor who specializes in treating the heart) pointing to an x-ray of Dad's clogged artery saying, “This is the one we call the widow maker.” Lucky, for my dad his doctor tracked down the cause of his shortness of breath and unclogged his artery. There are four leading conditions that make your parents susceptible to heart attacks. Here's a nutshell explanation of each, with some tips on how your mom and dad can keep clear of these widow makers.

High Blood Pressure

Of all things that will put your parent at risk—high blood pressure is the “big one.” It's also the one they can do something about. Imagine your garden hose hooked up to a fire truck. The pressure shooting through the hose would wear it thin in no time. Now imagine a small pump at the end of the hose trying to redirect the high-pressured water through other small hoses. Any bets on how long the pump can handle the pressure? In a less dramatic way, this is what high blood pressure does to your parent's heart. It's the continuous, high-pressured rush of blood flowing through blood vessel walls (hose-like arteries and veins) that wear them down to a point where they can tear or leak.

Geri-Fact

Blood pressure readings measure the force of blood coursing through your arteries. There are two numbers. Mine usually comes in at 110/80 (unless I've just read my teenage son's report card). The first number is the systolic blood pressure. It reads the force of the blood pressing up against the arteries in the arm with the blood pressure cuff on. The second or bottom number (diastolic) reads the pressure that remains in the arteries when the heart is relaxed. High numbers aren't good: consistently hitting 160 on the systolic is a sure sign to get to the doctor. Check with your doctor on what's considered high for your parent's age and weight.

Just about every drug store and even grocery stores have one of those cool machines where for a few quarters your mom can stick her arm in a tube and get a digital blood pressure reading. However, these machines may not be reliable, so if the reading is unusually high, follow it up with a reading from your family doctor. A blood pressure cuff also makes a great gift if your parent is homebound. Ask your family doctor or medical supply store if they can recommend a good, reliable brand for home use. Bottom line? There's no excuse for not knowing your blood pressure.

Reducing salt can bring down and control your high blood pressure. I'm not just talking about the table salt you sprinkle on your food. You'd be shocked at the salt (or sodium) content in many packaged or processed foods. Controlling weight, managing stress, and taking medications can also bring down the pressure levels. Diuretics are commonly prescribed because they take out salt and water from the circulatory system and send them off to the urinary system. Any medication has to be closely monitored by a physician so that other conditions your parent has aren't adversely affected. No matter what, a salty diet has to go and blood pressure checks should become routine. African-American families, especially, should be on high alert for high blood pressure because your parents are more likely than others to have high blood pressure.

Cholesterol

Let's go back to our garden hose example for a moment. Imagine fatty, sticky stuff stuck to the inside of the hose. There you are with your Martha Stewart garden gloves trying to water your prized red geraniums. A pathetic stream of water dribbles out. Cholesterol is the fatty sticky stuff stuck to your mom's blood vessels. When this stuff reaches a level that actually clogs the vessels, it's given a name: atherosclerosis. Cholesterol readings can tell your mom how much of this stuff is in her system. Your mom is at more risk of this if she smokes, has high blood pressure or diabetes, or is obese. If that's the case, it doesn't hurt to have her cholesterol checked once a year. If your mom's vessels get too clogged, that pathetic stream will cause real havoc with her heart.

Geri-Fact

Cholesterol hides out in animal products: meat, poultry, seafood, organ meats, eggs, and dairy products such as butter and cheese. One egg yolk will just about blow one day's healthy limit of cholesterol.

To reduce the risk of artherosclerosis a low cholesterol diet is the way to go. But don't go over the top on your mom. Changing lifelong food habits is tough. She's been slowly building up the fatty sticky stuff over a lifetime. The deal is to get her to cut down on fats one step at a time. Most experts think that no more than 30 percent of our calories should come from fats. Today, your mom can easily determine how much fat she's getting by checking out the fat breakdown on the packaging of food products.

Want to practice what you preach? Reduce your own fat intake. According to the American Heart Association, there are two kinds of cholesterol:

  • The “good” kind is called high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Your body makes HDL on its own for your protection. It's believed to actually carry cholesterol away from artery walls.
  • “Bad” cholesterol, known as low-density lipoprotein (LDL), clogs the arteries and increases your risk for heart attacks.


More on: Aging Parents

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Caring for Aging Parents © 2001 by Linda Colvin Rhodes, Ed.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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