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Take heart, good doctor

Doctors at Rush share strategies for maintaining their own heart health

We seldom think of doctors as patients. But physicians face the same medical challenges as the rest of us — including keeping their hearts healthy.

These three doctors at Rush University Medical Center each have unique histories and strategies for living a heart-healthy lifestyle.

What are their “secrets”? Among other things, a little knowledge, a little snacking and a little conversation with the neighborhood ducks. Not all advice you’d expect to hear, but certainly advice you can take to heart.

Michael Davidson, MD
Director of Preventive Cardiology

Michael Davidson was 16 when he decided to become a cardiologist. It was the year his father died of a heart attack at age 47.

Davidson’s father wasn’t the classic heart attack case. He was young; he didn’t smoke; and he wasn’t overweight. No one was aware he was at risk.

Davidson believes abnormal cholesterol levels were the cause. That’s a problem he inherited, as did his brother, who required bypass surgery at 44. His family’s situation illustrates a valuable lesson: the importance of knowing your risk factors.

Your blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels, weight, smoking status and family history all offer important clues about your heart health. Discuss these risk factors with your physician and learn what you can do about them.

For Davidson, keeping healthy has meant a combination of walking with his wife and eating well. That involves limiting saturated fat and simple sugars. But his own research at Rush has shown that consuming certain foods may be just as important as avoiding others.

Davidson says fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help reduce your risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome, precursors to diabetes and cardiovascular disease. His research has also shown how eating oatmeal can lower cholesterol; and further, omega-3 fatty acids can reduce elevated blood triglyceride levels (a risk factor for coronary artery disease in some people), can prevent clots that can cause heart attacks and may also lower your chances of heart rhythm disturbances.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish and nuts — foods Davidson eats regularly. But he also takes omega-3 supplements and cholesterol medication.

Just as important are the regular cholesterol tests, stress tests and other noninvasive screenings he undergoes to make sure he stays one step ahead of heart disease. As a doctor who specializes in prevention, he knows a proactive approach is the best one for dealing with risk factors.

Stephanie Dunlap, DO
Medical director of the Heart Failure and Cardiac Transplant Program

When you hear that Stephanie Dunlap recently climbed nearly 50 flights of stairs in Chicago’s new Hyatt hotel for a little exercise, it’s hard to believe she considers the first 13 minutes she spent on her NordicTrack the most difficult thing she’s ever done.

That was the day she pulled herself out of bed early to exercise after years of a considerably less active lifestyle.

As a cardiologist, Dunlap knows what’s important for heart health. But she used to think her busy schedule prevented her from fully practicing what she preached.

Although she usually ate healthful foods, she often went too long between meals, then overate. And extra sleep in the morning always seemed more important than exercise.

That morning on the NordicTrack changed things. She began by working out her legs. Gradually, she increased her time and added arm movement to her workout. Three months later she was putting in at least 45 minutes four to six times per week.

She’s found that she’s more likely to work out if she does it first thing in the morning. Today, she actually looks forward to it. As motivation, she rewards herself with new clothes — exercise clothes — as she loses weight.

She also makes an effort to stay on a regular meal schedule. She snacks when she’s hungry — which may seem counterintuitive, but it has actually helped her lose weight. Fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat yogurt and a handful of cardio-protective nuts are among her foods of choice.

“Make small changes,” she advises. “Even if you lose only two pounds a month, in a year, you’ve lost 24 pounds.”

Lynda Powell, PhD
Acting chair, Department of Preventive Medicine

It’s been said that home is where the heart is.

For Lynda Powell, it’s also where the inspiration has been. Where she has made her home has influenced how she lives her life — and how she protects her heart.

Living in Paris, in particular, changed her views of a healthy lifestyle. As Americans, much of our emphasis is on what you shouldn’t eat, she says.

In Paris she observed that how you eat may be just as important as what you eat, and that moderation is key.

“The French have one of the lowest rates of coronary disease in the world, despite the fact that they have among the highest intake of saturated fat,” says Powell.

They relish their cuisine but serve smaller portions than Americans. They also gather together to enjoy meals, eating slowly and savoring the sensuality of the experience.

Powell also noted that the French are less likely to engage in a formal exercise program and more likely to work physical activity into everyday life. For example, they may walk to the bakery in the morning for their baguettes and to the market in the evening for fresh produce.

What Powell learned is that living well can and should be enjoyable.

“If you’re trying to be healthy without being happy, you probably can’t sustain it,” she says.

She finds pleasure in wholesome meals served with a glass of wine, a drink noted for its cardiac benefits. And she takes her time eating, not only to enjoy her food, but also to recognize when she’s full. Though she rarely eats dessert, when she’s in the mood, she won’t forego a slice of chocolate cake. She believes deprivation backfires.

And rather than thinking of her running as “exercise,” she views it as an opportunity to experience nature, breathe fresh air and think about things she might not other-wise have time to. It also gives her a chance to say hello to a family of ducks she’s befriended in the Lincoln Park Zoo pond.

“It makes me feel good about life,” she says.

Working together What can you learn from these doctors? There may be more to heart health than you considered. If you’re ready to take a closer look at your own heart health, Rush can help.

With a comprehensive focus on education, screening and treatment to help prevent and manage heart disease, Rush is the place to turn for information and assistance. For free online tools that help you put lifestyle changes into practice, go to

The future is bright in cardiology

Experts at Rush are helping shape the future of cardiology with leading-edge research and some of the world’s most sophisticated technology, according to James Calvin, MD, section director of cardiology.

Researchers at Rush are pioneering new ways to identify individuals at risk for heart disease, including measuring blood levels of c-reactive protein, a marker of systemic inflammation, and homocysteine, an amino acid that in high levels has been linked to heart disease and stroke.

Interventional cardiologists at Rush are even taking research down to the cellular level: One clinical trial is investigating the use of adult stem cells to replace scar tissue from a heart attack with healthy new heart tissue.

An exciting new imaging test now available at Rush, the 64-slice computed tomography scanner, offers a significantly less invasive alternative to angiography. The rapid scan produces high-resolution images with remarkable detail.

New technology available at Rush also makes it easier to manage heart disease. Rush is the first hospital in Illinois to offer the in-home monitoring device LATITUDE for patients with implanted defibrillators. Whether it’s finding, diagnosing or treating heart disease, Rush is continually taking steps to improve every facet of cardiac care. For more information on heart care at Rush, visit the Heart and Vascular Program home page.

Go to the Heart Health Portal to learn what you can do for your own heart health.

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