This article was originally published as an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post (11 Jan. 2023): https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-728163
Since 1970, sports fans in the United States and throughout the world have gotten used to watching the Monday night Football game. Unlike Sundays with multiple games, Monday’s game is a stand-alone with a large viewing audience. Well over 20 million people are watching the game through ESPN and on different streaming services. This is aside from the live audience that usually has more than 65,000 attendees.
The last regular season Monday night game this year will be the one everyone remembers. The game was never completed. Near the end of the first quarter, after what seemed to be a routine tackle, 24-year-old defensive safety, Damar Hamlin, stood up and then after a few seconds, fell backwards to the turf, lifeless. His heart stopped beating due to cardiac arrest. As shocking as this was for the world to watch, he was actually in the ideal situation for such a dangerous event.
The training and medical staff were able to start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in a minute. In a very short amount of time, an auto defibrillator shocked Mr. Hamlin’s heart back into a normal rhythm. After being stabilized, he was quickly transported to a nearby hospital where the staff was ready to further treat him. As of the writing of this article, although his condition is still serious, he is continuing to improve and he is conscious and talking.
This terrible incident became national and international news. Sports commentators, who always have something to say, were speechless. People’s emotions spilled over to crying publicly, on live TV. People, who might not normally take to prayer, were indeed praying, each in their own way. One ESPN commentator on the show Get Up, just stopped the discussion going on in the studio about the incident and prayed out loud on live television. Folks who are not into sports all of a sudden became wrapped up in Mr. Hamlin’s well-being. It has definitely been a big come-together, unifying moment.
It is still too early to say with certainty what caused Mr. Hamlin’s heart to stop. It may have been the result of the blunt trauma from the tackle. Alternatively, perhaps there was some underlying condition. But being 24 years old and in peak condition, it would lead one to think that it had nothing to do with ischemic heart disease—the type we are used to dealing with, that cause heart attacks.
We have now seen a great awareness about learning how bystander CPR can save lives. It is extremely important to have auto external defibrillators (AEDs) available and close by, as well as training as many people as possible on how to use them. (I am a former CPR instructor and I served as an EMT for over 6 years. Unfortunately by the time emergency services begin CPR, it is usually too late for a good outcome. So yes, go out and get trained. With heart disease as prominent as it is, you might save a life one day.)
Risk of heart attack
Let’s take this a step further. Hearts stop beating every day. In the United States alone, 680,000 people a year die of heart disease. There is a heart attack every 39 seconds. Although the official age of heart attack risk is 45 and older in men, and 55 and older in women, there has been a frightening trend of more heart attacks and strokes in younger age individuals—even in their 20s.
Not every heart attack will cause cardiac arrest. Still, the American Heart Association tells us that in the United States, there are more than 356,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests (OHCA) annually, nearly 90% of them fatal. And unlike NFL Football games, there isn’t usually a bystander right there to begin CPR and defibrillation. Advanced Lifesaving Support (ALS) kits are usually many minutes away—too many minutes away.
The old adage comes to mind, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We have the ability to prevent, reverse and even cure heart disease. Unfortunately, the first symptom for many people that they have heart disease is an actual heart attack.
I am all for “awareness” campaigns. Next month is Heart Awareness Month. What about Heart Disease Prevention Month? This past November was National Diabetes Month to bring awareness about that disease. Let’s change that to Diabetes Prevention Month. YES, these are all diseases that can largely be prevented in the first place. The evidence of the links between lifestyle, and especially diet, smoking, and exercise is overwhelming! It’s not one small study done on laboratory rats! It’s thousands and thousands of studies of all kinds all showing basically the same results.
For early detection of disease, it’s important to do colonoscopies, mammograms, heart checkups, and annual comprehensive blood tests. But prevention of disease through lifestyle changes is the ideal!
So how do we prevent heart disease and heart attacks?
Here are 7 valuable tips for prevention that can do what medications can’t:
- Eat a plant predominant diet, with at least 6 daily servings of vegetables and fruits. Make sure your vegetables include green leafy vegetables.
- Cut out ultra-processed food (junk) from your diet. Keep your meat, chicken, fish, cheese, eggs and added oils to a minimum. If you need to reverse a heart condition, it is better to eliminate all animal products and oils.
- Don’t smoke or abuse any other substance like alcohol.
- Exercise—you don’t need that much. 35 minutes of walking 5 days a week can do wonders. Add a little muscle building and stretching even a couple times a week
- Get a good night’s sleep. 7-9 hours is recommended for most people
- Manage your stress. Solve your problems when you can and don’t try to fix things that you can’t. Meditation, yoga, exercise and prayer are all great for stress.
- Be social. Social integration has shown to promote longer life and less sickness and that includes heart disease.
We all wish Damar Hamlin a complete recovery and we all hope never to witness an event like that again. We have seen how people can come together and pray and contribute money to his foundation. Those are all positive things, as is learning CPR and having quick access to defibrillation. But in the end of the day, making sure we have reduced the odds of ever needing such assistance is best and it is in our power to do so! Changing from a standard Western diet to a diet free of processed food, low in animal products, along with activity, exercise, and adequate sleep, will be well worth the efforts involved and it will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”