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Spotlighting better heart health in ag for February
Illinois Correspondent

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The study Cardiac Risk Factors Between Farmers and Non-Farmers, published in the Journal of Exercise Physiology online in June 2011, concluded there was no discernible cardiac risk between the two groups. 

In the study researchers noted, however, that “for certain, farming is considered one of the top 10 most stressful and hazardous occupations in the United States.” The stressors they pointed to are those farmers know well: changes in market and crop prices, unpredictable weather, finances, illness and injury that may occur on the job.

While farmers may get more exercise than other occupations, there is an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) with increased stress. It is no surprise the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report stated laborers and farm owners have the highest rate of deaths due to stress-related conditions such as CVD and hypertension.

Knowing when stress is putting the farmer at risk is key to heart health – and with February designated as American Heart Health Month, it is time to take stock of it in the agricultural community.
William Shakespeare once wrote, “Go to your bosom; knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.” Holly Novak, M.D. is a doctor of Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Disease at Prairie Cardiovascular, and she explained when heart disease is happening, farmers will generally know it.

“You just don’t feel good,” she said.

Good heart health in agriculture depends on practitioners listening to their bodies and taking action. “Symptoms (of heart disease) can be classic, but also sudden. They can include fatigue, shortness of breath and nausea.

“When this is not related to eating or when you are waking in the night, it can be very concerning,” Novak said.

She shared a story of a farmer who had been suffering heart discomfort during harvest, but would not go to the doctor until the harvest was done. “The patient was having chest pain and finally came in because his wife got him in,” she explained.

Don’t wait to seek medical assistance when symptoms occur: “Heart pain usually starts with activity. Seek the help you need, get in and see someone.”

This is true especially in mature adults because in those over 50, the incidence of heart disease goes up. Don’t delay treatment, because the longer it is postponed, the more damage the heart may sustain.

Statistics show every year, more than 1 million Americans have a heart attack. WebMD defines a heart attack as a sudden interruption in the heart’s blood supply that happens when there is a blockage in the coronary arteries, which are the vessels that carry blood to the heart muscle.

The American Heart Assoc. (AHA) website at is a good place to learn about heart health, cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease. These terms describe problems related to plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries, or atherosclerosis.

When plaque builds up, arteries narrow and it becomes more difficult for blood to flow. This constriction can create a risk for heart attack or stroke. Heart disease includes heart failure, an irregular heartbeat – or arrhythmia – and heart valve problems.
Coronary artery disease can occur before a heart attack, causing that heart discomfort to which Novak referred. Recurring chest pain caused by restricted blood flow is known as angina.
There are also cardiomyopathy, arrhythmia and heart failure. Cardiomyopathy is a disease involving changes in the heart muscle that may interfere with its ability to pump effectively, and can lead to heart failure.

Cardiomyopathy is sometimes associated with other chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure or heart valve disease. Fluid buildup can occur with congestive heart failure when the heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. Congestive heart failure is often the result of coronary artery disease and heart attacks.

 “Aortic valve problems may happen years later as a result from an infection as a child. The valves get hardened by calcium and need to be replaced,” Novak explained. “As we age, we need to take good care. Exercise and eat a healthy diet.”

Types of exercise the AHA recommends include walking, swimming, cycling, jogging, skiing, aerobic dancing – basically, any activity that causes the person exercising to feel warm, perspire and breathe heavily without being out of breath and without feeling any burning sensation in muscles.

Novak said the plate diet and the diabetes diet are a couple that offer good nutrition. The AHA website shares: “Cooking at home can be a daunting task, but a rewarding one for your diet and lifestyle (and your wallet). Making small changes in your diet is important to your heart health.

“If you’re ready to start cooking at home, we have dozens of recipes and pointers to ease you into the kitchen. Our recipes are simple, nutritious and each has a preparation video so you won’t miss a step.”