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Tick Tock: Wake Up to the Signs of Heart Disease

Nauseated. Lightheaded. Short of breath. Did you know that these are all signs of heart disease? A majority of Hispanics ages 40 and older say they think they know the signs of heart disease, according to two exclusive AARP Segunda Juventud studies. The problem is, they don't. And that can be deadly: heart disease is the number one killer in the United States, and five out of six victims are 65 and older. But knowledge and prevention, experts say, can reduce those numbers.

Yet too often, the public lacks that knowledge, says Altagracia Chavez, M.D., of the Cleveland Clinic Heart and Vascular Center, "and I include my own family in that." Despite respondents' seeming confidence in recognizing warning signs, in the 2007 AARP study, only 45 percent of Hispanics recognized the symptoms of chest pain or discomfort; 22 percent recognized pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach; and just 4 percent knew that nausea could indicate heart problems.

But there's good news: in a 2008 follow-up study, the numbers were 55 percent, 31 percent, and 6 percent, respectively—a significant jump in the first two groups. When it comes to prevention, says Chavez, "Hispanics aren't as familiar with the things that are important to do. We tend not to take as good care of ourselves. And often we don't have access to health care as readily as other population groups."

But again, the surveys found some positives: Hispanics say they are willing to change their lifestyle to ward off heart disease.

In both surveys, more than 90 percent of Hispanics without a diagnosed heart condition said they were willing to exercise and eat a heart-health diet. And in the 2008 follow-up, more respondents said they are willing to try preventing or controlling high blood pressure and diabetes, lower cholesterol, moderate alcohol use, and quit smoking.

Ariel E. Reboyras, a Chicago alderman, has already adopted some of those changes. Because his mother and aunt suffered from diabetes—a major risk factor—he focuses on diet, exercise, and heart-health checkups. "Heart disease scares me," he says. "But I believe you have to practice what you preach, and I'm an avid bicyclist because of it."

Reboyras teamed up with the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, the Chicago Department of Public Health, and others to offer free heart-health screenings. To emphasize the importance of diet and exercise, he challenges constituents to join him on an annual bike ride.

Reaching Women

"Women are under the misconception that heart disease is a man's disease," says Cristina Rabadan-Diehl, at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. "Heart disease is the number one killer of women." Uncontrolled high blood pressure—the leading risk factor for heart disease and stroke—has been increasing among women. Between the early 1990s and early 2000s, its prevalence jumped from 17 to 22 percent.

But Hispanic women tend to be unaware of the dangers. Only 29 percent of Latinas, compared to 68 percent of non-Hispanic white women, say they know about heart disease.

Never Too Late

Family history led Alona Muñoz, 61, of San Antonio, Texas, to the doctor when she became fatigued—another possible warning sign. Muñoz knew heart disease was hereditary: it had killed her father when he was 37, and most of her aunts and uncles had had heart attacks or bypass surgery. Still, it was a shock when, at age 38, she developed multiple blocked arteries. She survived a quadruple bypass and stroke, and now the semiretired Mexican American housekeeper tries to exercise daily and eat well.

Among those diagnosed with a heart condition, 90 percent of the 2008 AARP survey respondents said they are trying to prevent or control high blood pressure, and more than eight out of 10 said they were working to manage their cholesterol levels, weight, or diabetes—all risk factors.

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