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Commentary: Know your heart, know the risks

By Jennie Garth, Special to CNN
Actress Jennie Garth found out at age 30 that she had a leaky heart valve.
Actress Jennie Garth found out at age 30 that she had a leaky heart valve.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Actress Jennie Garth had her heart tested at age 30 because of a family history of disease
  • She has a leaky heart valve, a non-life-threatening condition
  • Women should know it is not too late to make changes to protect their hearts, she says

Editor's note: Jennie Garth, an actress known for her work on Beverly Hills 90210, found out in 2000 that she has a heart condition. She is a supporter of the American Heart Association's Go Red For Women campaign

(CNN) -- You may not think that a woman like me could be at risk for heart disease, but the truth is, I have a heart condition. Fortunately, it isn't a life-threatening one, but not all women are as lucky.

One in three women has some form of cardiovascular disease. Even though it is largely preventable, one woman dies from heart disease almost every minute. In fact, more women die of cardiovascular disease than the next five causes of death combined, including all forms of cancer. It's the No. 1 killer of women.

The question is, why aren't we talking about heart disease more?

Women may suffer in silence or not even know they're at risk until it's too late. I'm choosing to speak up about this silent killer by partnering with the American Heart Association's Go Red For Women campaign.

Even though it is largely preventable, almost one woman dies from heart disease every minute.
--Jennie Garth

I can truly speak from my heart on the subject of heart disease because it has affected me my entire life. It's the one huge family health issue on both sides, and it runs strong. My mother's mother died of a stroke at 46. My mother has high blood pressure and got it in her early 40s. My sister has high blood pressure and got it in her mid 40s, and one of my half sisters had high blood pressure as well.

It all started when my father suffered a heart attack and was diagnosed with arterial sclerosis at age 37, which is the exact age I am today. My dad has always been my big, strong hero, the man I lived and breathed for, so when he started having heart problems, I was devastated at the thought of losing him.

I watched him go from training horses, baling hay, and driving tractors to fearing that too much exertion would prompt another heart attack. Over the course of 30 years, he underwent several open-heart surgeries, bypasses, a stent, balloons, you name it. Caring for him throughout the years and seeing firsthand how the disease affected our family was what made me want to take my health into my own hands.

When I turned 30, I chose to see a cardiologist. I committed to going every year for a checkup even though I was convinced I'd be the exception to the family gene pool. Instead, I found out that I have a leaky heart valve. It's not a serious condition, but it reminds me how important it is to stay in tune with my body.

Between working and raising my three daughters, it can be easy to forget to take care of myself, but the reality is that 80 percent of cardiac events in women are preventable if they make the right choices for their hearts. Incorporating a healthier diet, more exercise, and refraining from smoking can make all the difference. I often have to remind myself that taking time for me improves the lives of my husband and children. I refuse to let heart disease take me from those I love too soon!

Here's how you can choose to commit to your heart and the hearts of your family:

• Remember to make a doctor's appointment every year, perhaps around your birthday. When you go, be prepared with a list of questions and ask about your numbers, like cholesterol and blood pressure.

• Stay active for your heart and make physical activity a family affair. Spend time together walking the dog, gardening, or even playing tag.

Though my father lost his battle, he has inspired me to live a better life and to speak up for women at risk.
--Jennie Garth
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• Commit to planning balanced meals and teaching your family about healthy food choices. By teaching them these lessons now, you can prepare your children for a lifetime of healthy food decisions.

• Choose to breathe clean, fresh air. Kick the smoking habit once and for all.

Most women don't know that the heart is a very forgiving organ. Even if you have abused it by smoking, eating poorly, or by not exercising, you can start right now to repair it by making the right choices.

Though my father lost his battle, he has inspired me to live a better life and to speak up for women at risk. I urge you to join Go Red For Women and me in the fight against heart disease.

It's as easy as starting a conversation and speaking up. Listen to what your heart is telling you and spread the word to your friends and community about making the right choices and taking action. Let's use our voices to save lives.

Together, we truly can prevent heart disease. I'm living proof.

Choose to join the conversation at GoRedForWomen.org.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jennie Garth.