Heart disease, the leading killer in Merced County, seen as preventable

Angie Mendoza, Cindy Vega, and Meuy Saelee (left to right) demonstrate a R.I.P.P.E.D. fitness workout at the first Merced Healthy Living Festival on June 30, 2013.
Angie Mendoza, Cindy Vega, and Meuy Saelee (left to right) demonstrate a R.I.P.P.E.D. fitness workout at the first Merced Healthy Living Festival on June 30, 2013. Merced Sun-Star

The leading cause of death in Merced County is one that health officials and medical physicians say could be greatly reduced through seeking preventive care, consistent daily exercise and healthy eating.

Cardiovascular disease “is recognized as a preventable cause of death,” according to the 2016 Community Health Assessment by the Merced County Department of Public Health.

According to the report, more than 85 percent of Merced County adults report one or more risk factors for cardiovascular disease. The county is ranked 45th out of California’s 58 counties on heart disease death rates.

Vikram Lakireddy, director of the cardiac catheterization laboratory at Mercy Medical Center, said the No.1reason heart disease death rates are high is because of the lack of access to care.

A heart attack happens when one or more of the coronary arteries are blocked and no blood is pumping through to the muscles in the heart, according to the Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit medical organization. One of the keys to survival is quick performance of percutaneous coronary intervention, or PCI, Lakireddy said.

Until Lakireddy came to Merced in 2009, there were no other doctors who could perform the procedure.

“Time is muscle,” Lakireddy said. “The longer you delay it (PCI), the less time you have.”

“Being able to do that locally can give a much better chance at people surviving heart attacks and doing well even after that,” Lakireddy said.

Mercy Medical Center awaits approval from the state to begin doing these procedures, Lakireddy said. Until then, the closest places for residents to have the procedure are Modesto and Turlock, he said.

“It can absolutely bring down the rate of people dying in the county,” Lakireddy said. But, he added, “it may not prevent the number of heart attacks, because people eat what they want.”

“A lot of it has to do with wrong ingestion of food,” said Jose Reyes, former general practitioner and special procedure technologist. “Others don’t really pay attention to their health.”

Reyes, a Merced resident, said having the consistency and determination to change eating habits can be a challenge for many people.

“The older we get, the harder it is to change,” Reyes said. “Some of us have the ability to change and not miss certain things. Some of us don’t.”

An artery becomes blocked by buildup, Lakireddy said, primarily due to cholesterol. Red meat, oily, processed and fast foods are some options that can contribute to high cholesterol, he said.

“If you’re eating a big, juicy double cheeseburger, you can guess that’s bad for your heart,” Lakireddy said.

There are fewer people in the county with health insurance, Lakireddy said, meaning fewer people go to doctors to assess health problems that could eventually lead to conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, which all contribute to heart disease.

“Part of it also has to do with the poverty level in this county,” Lakireddy said.

Typically, poverty correlates with access to care, Lakireddy said, and prevents residents from preventive care that has the power to lower risks of heart disease.

Other risk factors are smoking, physical inactivity, stress or family history of heart attacks, according to Mayo Clinic.

Stephanie Nathan, public health program manager for the Merced County Department of Public Health, said its aim is to focus on preventive care against heart disease.

Nathan also said environmental factors have to be taken into account when it comes to living healthy lifestyles. Having safe places for children to play and access to healthy food are factors that can help reduce heart disease, she said.

South Merced, for one, does not have a grocery store, according to Nathan, and is home to five out of the 10 so-called “food deserts” in Merced County.

“The neighboring environment does contribute to someone being healthy or active,” Nathan said. “It’s easy to say, ‘live healthy,’ but, if you don’t have access, then there’s a whole other problem.”

Mary-Michal Rawling, director of governmental affairs for Golden Valley Health Centers, said the community group Neighbors United for a Better South Merced has been working to bring a grocery store to South Merced.

Neighbors United, who work closely with Golden Valley, have submitted petitions to city staff members with up to 1,200 signatures to make the empty lot on Canal Street and Childs Avenue a grocery store, said Griselda Villa, community health program manager for Golden Valley.

“There’s something holding up the lot,” Villa said. “In order to continue this effort, we’re asking people to come to meetings.”

Meetings are every first Wednesday of the month at 5:30 p.m. at the Senior Health and Wellness Center. For more information on health-education classes, residents can call the Merced County Department of Public Health at 209-381-1161.

Know ’N’ Go

Chronic disease self-management workshops, 9-11:30a.m., Oct. 4, 11, 18, 25 and Nov. 1, 8, Castle Family Health Centers

Tomando control de su salud (Taking control of your health) classes, 1-3:30 p.m., Oct. 4, 11, 18, 25 and Nov. 1, 8, Castle Family Health Centers

Tomando control de su salud workshops, 9-11:30 a.m., Sept. 28, Oct. 5, 12, 19, 26 and Nov. 2, Planada Elementary School

Tomando control de su salud workshops, 6-8:30 p.m., Oct. 13, 20, 27, Nov. 3, 10, 17 and Dec. 1, Winton Educational Foundation Center

Diabetes management workshops, 9:30 a.m.-noon, Sept. 28 and Oct. 5, 12, 19, 26, Los Banos Apartments

Chronic disease self-management workshops,10 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Oct. 14, 21, 28 Nov. 4, 11, 18, 25 and Dec. 2, Merced Women’s Haven of Hope