Physician assistant Mable Dunn examines patient Evelyn Fuentes at Mary’s Center, a community health center in Washington, D.C., on Thurs. Oct 17. (John Brecher / NBC News)

Latinos raising awareness on how to keep Hispanic hearts healthy; offer tips

Heart disease is the number one killer of Latinos nationwide.

Wanting to raise awareness of this deadly statistic, The American Heart Association and Latino leaders in medicine, nutrition and public policy united this week in New York for the fourth annual Tu Corazón Latino Health Summit to discuss how to better educate communities. The summit is one of many American Heart Association initiatives to improve heart health of all Americans and reduce cardiovascular-related deaths by 20 percent by the year 2020.

“The Latino population is becoming the second largest ethnic group in the U.S., and the Latino population carries a significant burden of risk factors for heart disease that are unique and complex,” says Dr. Mario J. Garcia, chief of the division of cardiology at the Montefiore Einstein Center for Heart and Vascular Care in New York.

Differences in race, ethnicity and gender affect the prevalence of disease within the population.

“Even within Latinos there are very different genetic profiles _ Latinos from the Caribbean are typically mulattos and Latinos that come from Central America, Mexico and some countries in South America, can have native American background and southern South Americans are typically European,” he says. 

For example, research shows African Americans are more likely to develop high blood pressure, and Latinos of native American origin have a higher risk of diabetes, Garcia says.

“It’s mainly because of DNA, but on top of that is diet factor,” he says.

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Heart disease starts to develop very early _ as young as the teenage years _ and Garcia warns that a person’s arteries can harden for a long time, with no symptoms.

“But one day out of the blue … it’s too late,” he says. “It’s common to see people getting heart attacks in their 50’s, but it’s become common to see Latinos in their 40s and even 30’s getting heart attacks. [Also,] developing high blood pressure and diabetes can lead to stroke and vascular disease in the legs can lead to amputation.”

Here are some tips Garcia recommends for you, and your family, to live a heart-healthy lifestyle:

1. Change your dietary habits.  More lean vegetables and less sugar; and eat according to how physically active you will be that day. A glass of orange juice is a rapid burning fuel _ if you don’t engage in physical activity, that sugar is converted into fat. A bowl of cereal is a slow burning fuel _ the sugar is released more slowly and thus gives you a steady amount of insulin. If you are going to be active, you can have foods that are fast burning and you will consume the energy before it turns into fat. Books like “The South Beach Diet” explain the glycemic index (amount of rapid energy you get from specific foods). It’s also important to eat several times a day. Don’t have large meals with a lot of calories before being inactive. All that food is going to turn into fat. Make your breakfast the largest meal of the day and your supper the lightest meal of the day.

2. Exercise. Partake in physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day, at least four or five days a week. Try not to use the elevator and use the stairs _ that alone improves your metabolism. Small measures like that that can be effective.

3. Do not use drugs. Cocaine use and smoking can precipitate a heart attack.

4. Raise awareness. Encourage the cafeteria at your kids’ schools, teachers and politicians to encourage a heart-healthy lifestyle. It will be easier for all of us if grocery stores, restaurants and cafeterias are all on the same page.

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