Many families know firsthand the toll that heart issues can take on health and well-being, and actress Jennie Garth learned this fact from an early age.
Both of Garth’s parents have faced heart-related issues, including high cholesterol and high blood pressure — two established risk factors for heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. Garth’s father had his first heart attack at 37.
“Not only did it drastically change my life circumstances, it educated me on the seriousness of the disease and the impact it has on not just the individual, but the whole family,” says Garth, who starred in 90210 and What I Like About You.
The World Health Organization estimates that heart disease kills 17.9 million people each year, more than any other cause of death.
After her father’s heart attack, Garth and her family began to make changes to their diet and lifestyle habits. Garth herself committed to taking a more proactive role in her own heart health, especially as she aged.
Being your own health advocate is the key. Knowing your genetic predisposition and your numbers is everything.
Breaking old habits
Reflecting on her family’s health habits while she was growing up, Garth says that it wasn’t all bad. While living in the Midwestern U.S., her family grew their own vegetables and raised pigs. But the diet high in animal fat that her father grew up with in the South was high in cholesterol and thus insidious to his heart.
Garth now eats a plant-based diet and avoids dairy and meat, which she said can cause inflammation and stress to the digestive system. Limiting animal products as much as possible is one of her tips for improving heart health.
“There are so many non-meat, non-dairy options available nowadays,” says Garth. “You can get plant-based butter at most grocery stores, and milk alternatives, like oat, almond, and cashew, to name a few. Even if you don’t think you’ll like the taste, try it. You might be surprised.”
Research backs up Garth’s advice, showing that plant-based diets can help delay the progression of, reverse, and prevent heart disease.
Getting regular exercise is another heart-healthy habit that Garth follows and that studies support for heart health. “Even if it’s a 15-minute brisk walk, just elevate your heart rate every day to get that blood pumping,” she suggests.
Advocating for your health
When Garth turned 35, she began seeing a cardiologist. She made the choice in part to alleviate the worry she felt from her family health history.
“I was very nervous that first visit, but was so happy to hear that my arteries weren’t in fact like my dad’s,” she says. “Having that information and reassurance helped me to move forward with less anxiety about it.”
A heart health examination did reveal that Garth had a slight valve prolapse, which is a heart abnormality that’s usually harmless but sometimes requires treatment. In Garth’s case, the prognosis was good, but she notes that having the information was helpful to keep in mind for the future.
She encourages anyone with concerns about their heart health to also be proactive and to get to know their health care team.
“Being your own health advocate is the key. Knowing your genetic predisposition and your numbers is everything,” says Garth, noting that body mass index, cholesterol, and blood pressure are key factors to know, as they can affect your ticker.
An echocardiogram and a stress test are two exams that can help your cardiologist detect issues, she adds.
“The fact is, you have one life, one body, and one heart,” she says. “So take care of it. Care enough about yourself and the people you love to take your own health seriously and to be your own best advocate.”