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Healthy Monday: Heart Walk can boost your life
Annual event, scheduled Saturday, benefits the American Heart Association
Louise Skelton works out in the cardiac rehab section of the Northeast Georgia Medical Center Rehabilitation Institute. Regular exercise, such as walking, can reduce people’s chances of heart disease. - photo by Tom Reed


Billy Hendrix, chairman of the Hall County Heart Walk, talks about what the event means to him.

One of the best things you can do to keep your heart healthy is to walk.

Coincidentally, walking can also be a way to help people who already have heart disease.

The 15th annual Hall County Heart Walk is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, with registration beginning at 9 a.m. The 3.2-mile route starts at the "Spirit Rock" across from Gainesville High School and winds through Longwood, Ivey Terrace and Wilshire Trails parks.

Proceeds will benefit the American Heart Association’s research and education efforts.

Billy Hendrix, local chairman of the Hall County Heart Walk, said last year’s event drew about 1,200 walkers and raised more than $100,000.

"We’re hoping for an even better turnout this year," he said. "There is no set cost to participate. You could raise $100 in advance and turn it in at the walk, or you could donate $5 when you register. It’s not just about the money, it’s about education and getting the word out."

Hendrix said everyone has a stake in the cause, because virtually no one is untouched by heart disease. If they don’t have it themselves, they have family members or friends who do.

Christy Moore, director of community benefit for Northeast Georgia Medical Center, agrees.

"Heart disease does affect so many of us," she said.

Not surprisingly, the Gainesville hospital, home of the acclaimed Ronnie Green Heart Center, brings a large contingent to the Heart Walk.

"We usually have really high participation," Moore said. "Typically, 250 to 350 people walk with the hospital team. And through our employee giving club, we raised about $12,000 last year."

Hospital employees see the results of heart disease firsthand, as does Hendrix, who works at Little Davenport Funeral Home.

"So many people are dying of this at too young an age," he said. "And a lot of it could be prevented if we would just change our lifestyle, by eating better and exercising."

But Dr. Lalitha Medepalli, a cardiologist with Northeast Georgia Heart Center in Gainesville, said the most important lifestyle change people can make is to quit smoking.

"It’s the No. 1 preventable risk factor," she said.

That point was reinforced last week, when a new study indicated that smoking may be even worse for women than for men.

"Normally, women develop heart disease later than their male counterparts," said Medepalli. "(Beyond) age 55 is considered a risk factor for women; for men, it’s 45."

The difference is believed to be due to estrogen, which seems to protect women from early heart disease. After going through menopause, a women’s risk of heart disease is about the same as a man’s.

But if a woman smokes, she doesn’t get the protective effect from estrogen. In the European study published last week, the average man had his first heart attack at age 72 if he didn’t smoke, and age 64 if he did.

Nonsmoking women typically did not have a heart attack until age 81, while female smokers averaged their first heart attack at age 66.

In other words, a woman who smokes has almost the same heart attack risk as a man, regardless of her age or her hormonal status.

Medepalli said that’s because women’s cardiovascular physiology is different.

"Women have smaller arteries, and smaller hearts," she said. "Smoking causes vasoconstriction (squeezing of the arteries). It also causes platelets to get sticky and form clots."

Because women’s arteries are already narrow, she said, the additional pressure caused by smoking can have catastrophic consequences.

Medepalli said it’s a myth that women don’t have heart attacks until they’re past middle age.

"In my practice, the youngest woman I’ve seen with a heart attack was 26," she said.

Women with heart disease are also more likely to die, because their condition is not detected early enough.

"Instead of chest pain, women often have atypical symptoms such as fatigue, and they tend to get diagnosed at a later stage," Medepalli said.

To emphasize the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, Northeast Georgia Health System’s Neighborhood Healthcare Center in Dawsonville is offering special vascular screenings for women on Sept. 24.

For $199, each patient will get a blood cholesterol panel, an EKG, scans of the abdominal aorta (for aneurysm risk) and the carotid artery (for stroke risk), and a test for peripheral artery disease (blood clots in the legs).

To make an appointment for the screenings, call 770-533-8902.

Medepalli said too many women worry about gaining weight if they quit smoking. But exercise, such as participating in the Heart Walk, can help prevent that from happening.

And even if women think they’re not at risk for heart disease, getting involved in an exercise program will benefit the entire family.

"Women are usually the chief role models in their family, and they need to set a good example for their children," Medepalli said. "Plaque (in the arteries) can start forming between the ages of 2 and 6, and it’s only going to get worse."