“My Brother Died of Heart Disease at 36″: The Importance of Heart Disease Prevention

Heart disease is the number one killer of American men and women, claiming approximately 600,000 lives each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s 1 in every 4 deaths. Of these deaths, 150,000 are under the age of 65, according to the Million Hearts Foundation.

Today, we hear from Ellen Santora, who lost her 36 year-old brother to heart disease. In her reflection below, she stresses the importance of heart disease prevention.

February is Heart Health Month. Many people’s minds turn toward fundraising for research around heart health—Walk for Heart, Jump for Heart, Hoops for Heart, and such. While these resources are fundamental to the continuation of scientific inquiry and advancement in our understanding of the heart, there comes a time where we have to realize our own role in caring for our own hearts.

I lost my brother to heart disease when he was 36 years old. Unbeknownst to him, and the rest of us who grieve his absence, he had been fighting atherosclerosis for what may have been ten years or more. According to the pathologist, his heart looked like that of an old, unwell man. His body had been working against narrowed arteries for some time.

Ellen and Ray as children with their parents.

Ellen and Ray as children with their parents.

How did we miss it?  How did we lose someone so important to us so unnecessarily?  I have to go back to our childhood to understand, though our childhood was not unlike a lot of others.

My brother Ray acted like an old man when he was a little boy. From early on, he liked suits and ties and the finer things that life had to offer.  He approached his world with an attitude of perfectionism.

No task was unworthy of his best effort. He was a learner and a doer. He was handsome, tall, blonde in the summer, and adventurous. He was a connoisseur of life who traveled to Yugoslavia for an archeological dig and to Greece for his scuba license. He skied, sailed, biked, ran, and was avidly, and ironically, attentive to his health.

Despite his zeal for life, he succumbed to stress. For as long as I remember, he bit his nails, craned his neck and tapped his foot with nervous energy. His “type A” personality was betrayed by these tells.  So, when—as a lawyer, husband, new father, and new homeowner—he reported to his new doctor in his initial intake visit that he had “heartburn”, he was treated with an over-the-counter antacid.  He had high cholesterol and was told to follow a low fat diet. These symptoms are common in our first-world lifestyle, as is heart disease.

Ray, the day before he passed away.

Ray, the day before he passed away.

A few weeks following the visit, he got up in the middle of the night to get a drink to soothe his “heartburn.” He checked on his one-year-old son, reassured his newly-pregnant-again wife that all was well, went to the kitchen of his new home, and died.  He had the phone in his hand to dial 911 because he was having a heart attack.

In a country where heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women, one would think that heart disease screening would be a natural part of our medical care, whether or not a person has a family history of heart disease. It isn’t.  And in a country where stress and indulgence go hand-in-hand to contribute to heart disease, we must be our own educated advocates.

We must know the answers to the following questions: What are the symptoms of heart disease? What are the tests that can identify its presence? I know these now. My brother did not.

Scientific research and healthcare change dramatically each year, yet the statistics around heart disease remain the same. The common denominator is ourselves. If we educate ourselves about our health as we work with the healthcare system to achieve the best, most specific care, we can impact these statistics. Beyond that, and more importantly, we can live and those who love us can be spared our loss for a little longer.

Further insights from the iTriage Clinical Team:

As Santora points out, heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States.

Heart Disease PreventionHeart disease symptoms can be easy to miss or dismiss, so it’s important to be proactive and take charge of your heart health. Knowing your heart disease risk and taking steps to maintain or improve your heart health will help lower your risk of developing heart disease, or catch it early, before it causes serious health problems or death.

Follow these steps to improve your heart health:

Know heart disease risk factors. The following risk factors increase your risk of developing heart disease:

  • High blood cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Being physically inactive
  • Having a family history or early heart disease
  • Age

These risk factors also increase the chances that existing heart disease will get worse. While you can’t control all the above risk factors (like family history of heart disease and age), knowing what they are and whether you have them is an important first step to addressing your risk of developing heart disease.

Know your blood pressure. High blood pressure can cause damage to the arteries and increase your chance of developing heart disease and heart failure.

Know your blood cholesterol levels. High cholesterol also increases your chance of developing heart disease. If you know you have high cholesterol, you can take steps to lower your levels by exercising and eating a healthy diet. Your primary care provider (see below) can recommend ways in which you can lower your cholesterol. For more on cholesterol, see our infographic on the subject: High Cholesterol: What You Need to Know.

Get a primary care provider (PCP). Good car owners know the importance of general maintenance. Rather than wait until their car breaks down on a highway, they make sure they catch problems early on by changing their car’s oil, rotating their tires, and changing their air filter.

The human body is similar: the more maintenance you perform, the less likely you’ll encounter serious problems. Primary care providers such as general practitioners, family practitioners, pediatricians, geriatricians and internists can help you perform this regular maintenance through regular check-ups and immunizations. If they do catch a problem, they can direct you to medical providers. People with PCPs are more likely to have lower healthcare costs, have chronic diseases under control, and experience higher satisfaction with their care. For more on the importance of having a primary care provider, check out our infographic on the subject: Why Everyone Needs a PCP.

Know your family history. Ask your family about their health history. As Genetics Home Reference notes,  “Families have many factors in common, including their genes, environment, and lifestyle. Together, these factors can give clues to medical conditions that may run in a family. By noticing patterns of disorders among relatives, healthcare professionals can determine whether an individual, other family members, or future generations may be at an increased risk of developing a particular condition.”

Eat well. You are what you eat! Eat a diet rich in fruits, veggies, whole grains, and fish to improve your heart health. Learn what foods improve heart health at the American Heart Association’s website, and avoid these foods.

Exercise. To improve your heart health, physical activity is a must. Aim for at least 30 minutes a day. Realize that you don’t have to be a marathon runner to reap the heart health benefits of exercise: brisk walks, swimming, hiking and biking are all great ways to move your body.

Don’t smoke. You know the drill. If you smoke, quit. If you don’t, never take it up. Smoking can lead to a myriad of heart health problems, including damage to the heart and blood vessels. This damage can lead to atherosclerosis, a condition in which a wax-like substance called plaque builds up in artery walls, limiting the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart and other parts of the body. Atherosclerosis can then develop into heart disease, which in turn can lead to chest pain, heart attack, heart failure, heart arrhythmia or death.

How do you keep your heart healthy? Let us know in the comments below!

Ellen SantoraEllen is a teacher of English who lives in Maine with her husband while enjoying a full life with their four daughters.

  • Aunt Carolyn

    I am Ellen and Ray’s Aunt Carolyn. I am a healthcare professional. Over the years, at work, I have often brought Raymond’s tragic early passing up as an example of a missed opportunity on the part of the medical community. It is very important to do all that this article relates and pay attention to our own health needs. But it is also important for healthcare practitioners to understand that heart disease needs to be in the differential workup for anyone – even young, thin, active men – so that appropriate work up, diagnosis and treatment occurs. Beautiful article Ellen. Thank you for posting it. Aunt Carolyn