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Blood pressure and cholesterol screenings important for cardiovascular health

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Dr. John Patrick McGee holds an arm cuff that physicians use to monitor patients' blood pressure, on Wednesday. (Juliette Cooke/The Daily Reflector)

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Karen Eckert
The Daily Reflector

Thursday, February 28, 2019

American Heart Month, which occurs each February, may be coming to a close but health care professionals at Vidant Health want residents of eastern North Carolina to know that caring for their hearts is something that should never end.

A good start to a healthy heart is to “know your numbers,” specifically blood pressure and cholesterol levels, said Dr. John Patrick McGee, a physician at Vidant Family Medicine.

Cardiovascular disease remains a leading cause of morbidity and mortality, according to the American Heart Association. An estimated 92.1 million U.S. adults have at least one type of cardiovascular disease which may lead to myocardial infarction, stroke or death. By 2030, 43.9 percent of the U.S. adult population is projected to have some type of cardiovascular disease.

Closer to home, cardiovascular disease was the leading cause of hospitalization in North Carolina in 2016, according to the Justus-Warren Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention Task Force.

McGee said blood pressure and cholesterol screenings can help patients track their numbers and manage their health.

Screenings can take place in a variety of places, he said. Taking patients’ blood pressure is a routine procedure at any doctor’s visit, but In between visits people can seek out clinics and health fairs in the area where blood pressure screenings are offered for free.

People also can check their blood pressure using machines available at some pharmacies and stores, he said.

A blood pressure level generally considered normal by health professionals is 120 over 80. If either number is larger, that is an indication of high blood pressure, McGee said.

The American Heart Association estimates that 50 percent of the population has high blood pressure, he said. Some of these people may not know it.

Checking for cholesterol involves drawing blood. This testing is available at doctor’s offices as well as at health clinics and fairs, McGee said. 

Vidant offers free screenings in the community, said Brian Wudkwych, external communications specialist for Vidant Health.

If screenings reveal high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels, it is important to get those numbers under control, McGee said.

For patients whose blood pressure is elevated, but not high enough to requre medicine, McGee said the first thing he does is discuss lifestyle changes.

“If you smoke, you have to quit,” said McGee. “(Smoking) is one of the leading preventable causes (of high blood pressure).”

More lifestyle changes include eating a diet that is low in sodium, making healthy food choices, not eating a lot of processed foods and exercising daily, he said..

The recommendations about exercise have evolved, he said.

“It used to be, oh, 30 minutes a day a couple of times a week, you’ll be fine,” McGee said. “Now (we say try) to do 30 minutes of extra activity every single day. A prescription for exercise is one of the things that we’re starting to see doctors doing. ... We actually do a physical paper prescription for exercise.”

Not only are diet and exercise important for healthy blood pressure, but they also play a role in controlling cholesterol levels, McGee said.

Patients with high cholesterol should avoid red meats or at least make sure they are leaner cuts, he said. Use grilling or baking for methods of cooking, instead of frying.

Barbecue, fried chicken and biscuits are food staples in the South and specifically in eastern N.C. McGee recommends portion control when eating favorite regional foods.

Since restaurant servings are typically large, eat half and take the rest home for another time, he said. Or order one meal and share it with your dining partner, along with a salad.

Cook at home more instead of eating out so you can control ingredients, McGee said. Use fresh fruits and vegetables. Frozen is probably the next best option after fresh. Canned vegetables can have a lot of sodium, he said. Rinse the canned vegetables off if possible.

McGee recommends dividing your plate into four quadrants. Lean meat goes in one quadrant, carbohydrates — such as pasta, potatoes or rice — in another. Servings of these items should be the size of the palm of your hand, he said.

The rest of the plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables, he said.

In addition to making personal lifestyle changes, some patients are prescribed medication, McGee said.

Vidant Health is doing its part to prevent heart disease, according to Wudkwych.

Three Vidant Medical Group clinics were awarded “Gold Status” from the American Heart Association in January for a program called Target: Blood Pressure. These clinics, in Greenville, Edenton and Manteo, focused on helping high-risk patients manage their blood pressure, Wudkwych said.

For more information go to www.heart.org.

Karen Eckert can be reached at 252-329-9565 or keckert@reflector.com.

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