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Editor's note: This is the third in a four part series on the Community Health Needs Assessment completed by SIH. Next week's story will be on improving mental health in Southern Illinois.

When Southern Illinois Healthcare released findings from its Community Health Needs Assessment in March, they chose three health priorities for the region: Cancer, cardiovascular disease (commonly called heart disease) and its risk factors of diabetes and obesity, and mental health.

Heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control, it was responsible for 614,348 deaths in 2014. It lead cancer, number two on the list, by more than 22,000. Chronic respiratory diseases, accidents, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney diseases and suicide round out the top 10.

In Illinois the prevalence of heart attacks is 3.8 percent, but the only two counties in Southern Illinois that comes close to that number. Perry County is below the state average at 3.5 percent. Jackson County comes close at 4 percent. Other Southern Illinois counties have more than double the state prevalence of heart attacks at 8.2 or 8.3 percent.

So what can be done? The risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, being overweight, being physically inactive, smoking, a family history of early heart disease, history of preeclampsia during pregnancy, unhealthy diet and age, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Some of these things cannot be changed: family or personal health history and age. The good news is every other risk factor for heart disease can be changed. We talked about diabetes and weight as risk factors, so let’s take a look at other risk factors.

High blood pressure and high cholesterol can be changed by making small changes in diet over time.

Nicole Lence, dietitian at Herrin Hospital, explained what is meant by a heart healthy diet.

“Heart healthy diets will help lower overall cholesterol, decrease LDL or bad cholesterol and increase HDL or good cholesterol. A heart healthy diet will also be low in sodium, so it will help with blood pressure,” Lence said.

So what foods are part of a heart healthy diet? Lence said it would include leaner meats that are grilled, steamed or baked, but definitely not fried.

“It’s going to have something with dietary fiber, especially soluble fiber, like that found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables,” Lence said. “I always tell them to limit saturated fats, which will be the fats that are hard at room temperature.”

Lence used bacon grease as an example of a fat not to eat.

“You wouldn’t pour liquid bacon grease down your drain because it would get hard and clog your pipes. So, you don’t want that fat in your arteries, either,” Lence explained.

She asks her patients to focus on fats that are liquid at room temperature, with a special warning about trans fats.

“Avoid trans fats at all cost. They not only increase your bad cholesterol, but also decrease your good cholesterol,” Lence said.

Trans fat is a processed fat or one that is not found in nature. It is made when take what is originally a healthy fat, like vegetable oil, and is made into a hard fat. Because they change the composition of it, the trans fat becomes a fat that your body does not recognize. To avoid trans fats, leave anything with the words hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated on the grocery store shelves.

The other components include: Limit fat and choose healthy fats and eat whole grains and lots of fruit and vegetables.

Do any of these guidelines sound familiar? They should.

As Lence pointed out, eating an unhealthy diet or highly processed foods increases you chances for becoming overweight and raises the risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and sleep apnea. Weight loss in general can prevent disease.

Blood pressure also can be lowered by following a heart healthy diet.

The average healthy person should limit his or her sodium to 2,300 mg per day or less. Lence usually recommends people go with 2,000 mg. A person diagnosed with heart disease is allowed 1.500 mg of sodium per day. She said a lot of sodium comes from processed foods, canned foods, snack foods like pretzels and potato chips and prepackaged rice dishes and meals, and condiments like ketchup, barbecues sauce and soy sauce.

To reduce your sodium, eat food cooked at home with fresh ingredients. Even seemingly good restaurant choices have too much sodium. Lence suggests choosing foods with 140 mg of sodium or less. 

A sedentary lifestyle is another risk factor that can easily be changed. It is as easy at taking a walk. In fact, the SIH website says you add two hours to your life expectancy for every hour you walk. Walking is an exercise that can be done anyplace you happen to be. On vacation? Take a hike or go shopping. Make at least one loop around the mall or craft fair before you buy. At home, walk the dog. Go to the grocery store. Check out the hotel gym when traveling for business. Have your college student show you part of the campus.

Smoking is another risk factor that can be changed. Call the Illinois Tobacco Quitline at 1-866-QUIT-YES (866-784-8937) or talk to your family physician for help. 

Lence has one more tip: Don’t give up because you see some failure.

“People are too hard on themselves. You did not get in whatever situation you are in overnight, and you won’t cure it overnight,” Lence said. “There will be back slides.”

People make one bad choice, like having donuts for breakfast, then use it as an excuse to make bad choices all day or quit altogether.

“It’s like thinking, ‘I dropped my phone; I might as well stomp on it until it’s smashed.’ You wouldn’t do that. You would pick up the phone and try to fix it,” Lence said.

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Reporter

Marilyn Halstead is a reporter covering Williamson County.

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