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Up until the moment Becca Tobin’s heart stopped for seven minutes in an airport food court two years ago, there had been no signs that there was anything wrong with her. Fortunately, the former ASU women’s basketball star survived her ordeal, surpassing doctors’ predictions and going on to play professionally overseas.
Tobin’s total lack of warning is typical of most women, said ASU Clinical Assistant Professor and cardiac nurse Heather Ross.
“Women don’t always have the same kind of symptoms as men,” Ross said. “Unfortunately that translates a lot of the time to women not getting those clues that something is wrong until it’s too late.”
To help share that and more invaluable knowledge, ASU women’s basketball will host its third annual Heart Health Awareness Game on Saturday, Nov. 18, at Wells Fargo Arena. A Heart Healthy expo featuring free samples of healthy local cuisine and fitness assessments will take place outside the arena beginning two hours before the 2 p.m. game time.
Head Coach Charli Turner said that considering how the team has personally been affected by heart health issues — another former player, Aubrey Johnson, lost her 15-year-old brother to heart failure in 2006, and Turner’s own husband lives with heart disease — partnering with the American Heart Association to host the awareness game seemed like a no-brainer.
“For all of those reasons this has just really hit home for our ASU family,” she said. “And we feel like it’s our obligation because of the platform we have to give back within our community.”
Volunteers from ASU’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation, College of Health Solutions and Sun Devil Fitness Complex, as well as community partners including Dignity Health and the American Heart Association, will be on hand to give blood pressure and cholesterol checks, CPR training and more.
“Taste of Tempe” will feature healthy food samples from more than a dozen local restaurants and grocery stores, such as Outback Steakhouse, Red Robin, Jimmy John’s, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.
Attendees are of course encouraged to stay for the game following the expo, which will include a heart health awareness-themed halftime, complete with activities and giveaways.
“In our small way here, we’re trying to educate and have a fun event,” Turner said.
Despite a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found deaths from heart disease are on the decline, it is still the No. 1 killer of women, Ross said.
Ross researches wearable heart-health-tracking devices that can alert a patient that something is wrong before they begin to experience symptoms, hopefully preventing adverse reactions. She presumes the CDC’s findings about the decline in deaths from heart disease may be related to an increase in smoking bans and the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
“When they banned smoking in public places in the UK years ago, they saw a significant drop in heart attack rates,” Ross said. “And rates of sudden cardiac death in the U.S. dropped quite a bit in the years since the ACA was passed. What that makes us think is that people are getting checkups and preventative care, and are better able to take care of chronic health conditions because they have insurance.”
Still, the New York Times reported just this week that new guidelines for high blood pressure mean millions of Americans will need to change their lifestyles or begin taking medication. The news underscores the pervasiveness of heart health issues and the need for diligence where they are concerned.
The No. 1 cause of heart disease, Ross said, is smoking. Other factors that put people at risk include having diabetes and being post-menopausal.
Unfortunately, though, there are cases where one’s lifestyle or stage in life don’t contribute to causing the disease. Ross specializes in electrical arrhythmia, a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat. A related condition, atrial fibrillation, is also common in women and can cause strokes.
“It’s important to realize that a lot of things go along with heart disease, including risk of stroke,” Ross said.
As far as prevention goes, she recommends partaking in regular exercise, eating a balanced diet and not smoking.
“There’s a lot of data that suggests that a Mediterranean diet that really focuses on veggies, whole grains, fruits and lean meats can be cardio-protective,” she said. “One of the tips we give patients when they go grocery shopping is to stick to the edges (of the store),” where healthier foods tend to be located.
In addition to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet, Turner suggests dealing with stress through practices like yoga and mindfulness.
“Behavior change is really, really hard,” said Turner, whose master’s thesis focused on lifestyle changes in relation to heart disease. “But I think the biggest thing to realize [about heart disease] is that you can prevent it.”