'Monday Night Football' lesson: Take steps to prevent heart disease - opinion

How do we prevent heart disease and heart attacks? Here are seven valuable tips for prevention that can do what medications can’t:

 BUFFALO BILLS safety Damar Hamlin (3) makes the tackle on Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins after which Hamlin collapsed on the field and was taken to the hospital in critical condition, in Cincinnati, last week.  (photo credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)
BUFFALO BILLS safety Damar Hamlin (3) makes the tackle on Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins after which Hamlin collapsed on the field and was taken to the hospital in critical condition, in Cincinnati, last week.
(photo credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)

Since 1970, fans of American sports in the United States and throughout the world have gotten used to watching the Monday Night Football game. 

Unlike Sundays when there are many games, Monday’s game is a stand-alone with a large viewing audience. Well over 20 million people watch the game through ESPN and on other streaming services. This on top of the live audience which usually numbers over 65,000 spectators.

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 after a few seconds, fell backward to the turf, lifeless.

His heart stopped beating due to cardiac arrest. As shocking as this was 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 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.

 Jan 2, 2023; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Buffalo Bills cornerback Siran Neal (33) reacts as Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin (3) is tended to on the field and taken off by ambulance in the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium (credit: Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports) Jan 2, 2023; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Buffalo Bills cornerback Siran Neal (33) reacts as Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin (3) is tended to on the field and taken off by ambulance in the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium (credit: Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports)

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 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 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 causes 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 six 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.

Let’s take this a step further. Hearts stop beating every day. In the United States alone, 680,000 people die of heart disease a year. 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 at 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 “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” comes to mind. We have the ability to prevent, reverse and even cure heart disease. Unfortunately, for many people the first symptom that they have heart disease is an actual heart attack.

Change awareness campaigns to prevention campaigns

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, diet, smoking, and exercise is overwhelming. It’s not one small study done on laboratory rats but 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.

7 tips for preventing heart attacks that can do what medications can't

So how do we prevent heart disease and heart attacks? Here are seven valuable tips for prevention that can do what medications can’t:

  1. Eat a plant predominant diet, with at least six daily servings of vegetables and fruits. Make sure your vegetables include green leafy vegetables.
  2. Cut out ultra-processed food (junk food) 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.
  3. Don’t smoke or abuse any other substance, like alcohol.
  4. Exercise – you don’t need that much. Thirty-five minutes of walking five days a week can do wonders. Add a little muscle building and stretching even a couple of times a week
  5. Get a good night’s sleep. Seven to nine hours is recommended for most people
  6. 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.
  7. Be social. Social integration has been shown to promote longer life and less sickness, which includes heart disease.

We all wish Hamlin a complete recovery and hope to never witness an event like that again. We have seen how people can come together, pray and contribute money to his foundation. Those are all positive things, as is learning CPR and having quick access to defibrillation. But at 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 and 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.

Alan Freishtat is a health and wellness coach and personal trainer, with 23 years of professional experience. He is the director of The Wellness Clinic and can be reached at [email protected]