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Senior Citizen's Guide to Indianapolis

How Healthy Living Decisions can be the Best Medicine

A stroke has always seemed more frightening and insidious to me than a heart attack. A heart attack may cripple or kill, but a stroke – which affects the arteries leading to and within the brain – is a silent stalker that can leave its victims speechless, weeping and incapacitated, for a long period of time.

A stroke reduced my German grandmother from a strong, sassy, independent woman to a bed-ridden, lingering invalid; in many ways, it seemed that her experience was worse than the heart attack that swiftly killed my father.

My beloved mother died at age 90 of heart failure following a decade or so of mini strokes, known as TIAs – transient ischemic attack. From age 50 or so, she suffered from high blood pressure. I say "suffered" because she often spoke of feeling dizzy or "woozy," with ringing in her ears. She took medicine, which no doubt extended her life, but the quality of her last two or so decades was not good. The small strokes affected her mental agility and left her depressed.

Hence, I have avoided learning about strokes like the plague....

But "knowledge is power." Last fall, I took command of my own ship of health and well being after reading a small article about a program sponsored by the American Heart Association, in conjunction with the St. Vincent Heart Center of Indiana. The article explained that the heart association was seeking five women to be heart-healthy challengers and participate in the annual "Go Red for Women" campaign – a national program designed to alert Americans that heart disease is, in fact, the No. 1 killer of women.

My risk factors set the stage. I was already on cholesterol medication (Lipitor), which I started taking in my late 50s.  As a reporter for many years, I was a deadline-pressure junkie; I thrived on stress. My take on exercise was that it was a means only for quick weight-loss; I could see no other benefits. To add insult to injury, I was an occasional smoker; an ultralight American Spirit cigarette, I thought, "took the edge off," especially with a cocktail or a glass of wine.

As a metro-state columnist at the Indianapolis Star before I retired in 2006, I was already familiar with the good work of the AHA and its campaign to educate women. I had the pleasure of attending a "Go Red" luncheon a few years before I retired, after writing a column about a young woman who had died of heart disease at age 21.

All this information, coupled with the sad fact that my cholesterol was on the march again – in August it had climbed to 240, despite taking Lipitor – motivated me. I was thrilled when I got word that I was one of five women chosen. Thanks to this very proactive program, we have received testing and baseline information about our heart health from cardiologist Dr. Nancy Branyas; we are exercising at Lifetime Fitness with trainers; we have met with St. Vincent dietitians; and we are being gifted with facial treatments at the offices of Dr. Joyce Turkle.

We all know, however, that this is not a sprint, but a marathon. My commitment is to exercise regularly and vigorously, to not smoke and to eat a heart-healthy diet. Now that I am in command of my own ship of health and well being, strokes are simply another area of heart-related health to be understood and treated with preventative measures. The result? I no longer feel as if I am waiting for the axe to fall in terms of a heart attack or stroke; I am in charge of my own destiny, I am taking responsibility and I am, I believe, potentially healthier at age 63 than ever before in my life.

Below is some basic information about strokes, from the American Stroke Association, a division of the American Heart Association:

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