It's the season of love, but some people are wearing red this month to symbolize more than romance.
February is American Heart Month, and the American Heart Association is raising the awareness of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "About every 25 seconds an American will have a coronary event, and about one every minute will die from one."
(Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich) Nancy Burkle maintains strength in her legs by working out on this machine at The Summit Tennis and Athletic Club. She and her husband, Garry, exercise at least three days a week.
"We have so many symbols of love and hearts in February. It's so important you take care of your own heart," said Karen Colbert, regional director of communications for the American Heart Association in Western Pennsylvania.
Seniors especially should be aware of the risk factors and steps that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of developing heart disease.
"All seniors need to be concerned with the risk factors of heart disease," said Monica Morroni-McMahon, registered nurse for cardiac rehabilitation at Altoona Regional Health System.
Those most at risk for heart disease are people who smoke, are overweight or have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or high blood sugar. By leading healthier lifestyles, seniors can prevent themselves from becoming a statistic, she said.
Anyone with pre-existing conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or high blood sugar should listen to their doctors. Manage the conditions with the prescribed medications and correct dosage, Morroni-McMahon said. Not smoking is essential.
"It's probably one of the worst things that anyone can do for their heart, both young and old. That is a very modifiable risk factor," Morroni-McMahon said.
Seniors should also be aware of their family medical history, and they should also pay attention to their bodies for warning signs.
"The more aware you are of your body, the better," Colbert said.
The heart is a muscle and needs exercise. Seniors need to start an exercise regimen to improve circulation and exercise their hearts.
"Really hearts do better with exercise of some type," Morroni-McMahon said. "You have to move to improve."
Walking is an ideal exercise for seniors, and starting slow is fine, she said. In the winter, when it might not be safe or comfortable to walk outside, seniors can walk inside.
It might mean walking in the mall or simply setting a timer for 10 minutes and walking around the living room or in apartment hallways.
For seniors who have knee problems or other issues where they are unable to walk without pain, they should try walking in an indoor swimming pool.
"Water takes some of the pressure off the knees and joints," Morroni-McMahon said. Exercise of any type is acceptable.
Many insurance companies will pay for a gym membership through the Silver Sneakers program for seniors 65 years or older. The membership allows full access to health clubs, as well as special classes geared to seniors.
Billie Jo Greaser, Silver Sneakers adviser for The Summit Tennis and Athletic Club, said the program geared to seniors has about 500 active members.
"The program works on strength, flexibility, agility and balance," Greaser said.
Garry Burkle, 68, of Altoona became a Silver Sneakers member three years ago to keep in shape. Burkle and his wife, Nancy, were already active: biking, hiking, kayaking and snow-shoeing in the winter.
"In order to keep ourselves fit to do all those things, we go to the gym," said Burkle, explaining that fitness is important to them. "We have two grandkids, but we're not ready to sit in a rocking chair."
Bypass the drive thru
Exercise is important, but so is diet. Obesity is another risk factor associated with heart disease. Healthy eating is key to a healthy lifestyle.
Shirley Williamson, 80, of Altoona underwent open heart surgery eight years ago. Her doctor told her to lose weight, but it was too hard.
Finally she joined Weight Watchers in Altoona and gradually lost 35 pounds. She hasn't missed a Weight Watchers meeting in eight years (except for a couple times when she was sick). The weight has stayed off. Her cholesterol has gone down, and so has her blood pressure.
"I tried losing on my own and it didn't work," Williamson said. "It makes you feel a lot better." Weight Watchers is a diet program that focuses on controlling portions and eating healthy foods that are high in fiber. (Participants are allowed to eat whatever they want, but they account for the foods in a daily log.)
"It's healthy because you're getting your fruits and vegetables and your fiber," said Gretchen Sell, a group leader at the Weight Watchers in Altoona.
Even if seniors are not on a formal weight loss program, they should still focus on eating fruits and vegetables, holding the salt and watching portion sizes.
Morroni-McMahon advised dividing a 9-inch plate into quarters. Half the plate should be vegetables, a quarter of the plate should be meat (about 3 ounces), and the other quarter can be a starch, such as potatoes or bread.
"It's hard for society to view that. Usually people want to put a steak in the middle of the plate," she said. "The more fruits and vegetables, the better."
And, it's OK to eat the same produce every day.
"The real hint here is people have the right to choose what fruits and vegetables they like. I have one gentleman who only likes tomatoes. I said that's fine. Eat all the tomatoes you like. Fruits and vegetables are wonderful. They're great for your diet."
An important tidbit is to eat a healthy breakfast every morning, Monica Richers-Kelly, registered dietitian at Altoona Regional Healthy System said. Whole grains, milk, juice and a little bit of protein are ideal.
Going out to eat also can be a problem for seniors.
"Portion sizes are outrageous," Richers-Kelly said.
Instead of eating the entire meal at the restaurant, seniors should eat half or less, ask for a box and eat the rest for lunch the next day.
Changing habits is hard, especially for seniors, Richers-Kelly said. So, they should start slow.
"It's little baby steps," Richers-Kelly said. Gradually switch from whole milk, to 2 percent, then 1 percent and finally skim.
"It takes 21 days to establish a new habit. Don't try to change everything overnight," Richers-Kelly said.