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This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.

Jessica Martinez, a community health worker focused on heart health with Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center, speaks to a patient during the pandemic. (Photo provided by Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center)

February is American Heart Month, a time meant to raise awareness around heart health issues. As with many awareness months, however, experts are hoping to extend the conversation year-round.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Milwaukee County, the death rate was 222.1 per 100,000 for the year 2020, according to data from the state Department of Health Services. This is higher than the national and state death rate – 211.5 per 100,000 and 158.8 per 100,000, respectively.

Organizations such as the Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center have programs to help people manage cardiac disease, including high blood pressure.

Jessica Martinez, a community health worker with the center, said she is screening patients who have a blood pressure of 140 over 90 or higher. A healthy blood pressure is 120 over 80.

Martinez said working with someone one-on-one is crucial to managing disease and helping people understand what steps they can take to mitigate it.

“It’s one thing to be able to teach somebody something, but it’s another thing to be able to flip the questions and see how much they know,” Martinez said.

Making changes in some areas can help manage or prevent heart disease:

  • Smoking – Smoking can increase someone’s risk for developing cardiovascular disease
  • Exercise – Regular exercise, around 30 to 60 minutes a day, can help reduce risk
  • Diet – Eating a “heart healthy” diet, meaning mostly vegetables, fruits, plant-based proteins like beans and legumes and whole grains

Alex Forsythe, a dietitian at Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center, said it’s more than just what foods someone eats: Often, people need help figuring out how to prepare foods they haven’t had before, especially fresh foods.

“Preparing food is a huge piece of it, especially when a food is foreign to someone” Forsythe said. “We’re educating people just on basic ways to cook and prepare a vegetable, but also recognizing that this person may not have a ton of cooking skills or have access to a functional oven or stovetop – so what can we do with a microwave?”

Forsythe said it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

“When you’re diagnosed with high blood pressure or a type of cardiac condition, it’s a lot to take in and process,” Forsythe said. “The truth of the matter is, that individual’s not even ready to make a lifestyle change.”

But the changes don’t always have to be drastic right away, said Dr. Ivor Benjamin, director of the cardiovascular center at the Medical College of Wisconsin. He said finding a place to exercise can be one of the most difficult activities for new patients.

His advice: Find a pair of comfortable shoes and a place to walk. If someone walks at a quick pace, enough to make them out of breath if they try to talk, they can get their heart rate up and start improving their blood pressure.

Walking for 30 minutes a day, six days a week is enough to eclipse the American Heart Association’s recommendation of 150 minutes per week.

Benjamin recommended that people with high blood pressure find ways to test often and keep a diary of the results.

“You should know your blood pressure the same way you know your age,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin said that setting good habits to combat heart disease usually takes about 21 days of continued practice.

Ivor said he encourages family elders to have discussions with the younger generations about blood pressure and heart disease, so that they can determine whether they need to make lifestyle changes.

“It’s not simple, but especially in communities with misinformation and mistrust of systems, it’s important for those conversations to occur,” Benjamin said.

Find out more

The Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center is posting virtual information sessions on its social media accounts every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the months. The videos are available on the organization’s Facebook page.

For more tips and resources about heart health, visit The Heart Truth website. And you can go here and here.

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