Heart disease parish’s No. 1 cause of death

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 11, 2001

VIDALIA, La. – Hyram Copeland knew it wasn’t normal to be so tired after working in his yard for a short time, so he went to the doctor to get his heart checked out – and it probably saved his life.

Copeland, who suffers from hereditary heart problems, had to undergo a triple bypass in late May. Doctors found a large amount of plaque in his arteries. &uot;If some of that had broken loose, … I could have died,&uot; he said.

He has had to make several lifestyle changes, including walking for exercise each morning and cutting sugar and fat in his diet.

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&uot;It’s the hardest thing to do, but it’s something I’ve got to do,&uot; he said.

Copeland, mayor of Vidalia, went back to town hall shortly after his operation and is now doing fine.

But many in Concordia Parish aren’t so lucky, statistics released Monday by the Department of Health and Hospitals show.

Heart disease was the leading cause of death in Concordia Parish in 1997, the last year statistics were available.

And the rate of heart disease in Concordia was more than one and a half times higher than that of the state as a whole – 453.1 deaths per 100,000 people versus 272.1 per 100,000 statewide.

&uot;People in Louisiana know how to eat good things – gumbo, fried foods, plenty of butter,&uot; said Dr. John Naponick, regional medical director for DHH.

That greatly contributes to local heart diseases rates, as do obesity, smoking, environmental factors, genetics, lack of exercise and other factors, he said.

Heart disease is enough of a problem region-wide to attract the attention of the American Heart Association and private foundations, who are teaming up to combat the problem in Concordia and surrounding parishes.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has awarded a $163,762 grant to the association’s central Louisiana office to expand Operation Heartbeat.

That is a program to educate the public on the importance of seeking early medical attention for suspected heart problems.

The Alexandria-based Rapides Foundation has already committed $360,000 over two years to place automated external defibrillators in fire trucks, police and sheriff’s vehicles and other vehicles that respond first to emergencies.

Both grants will fund work in Concordia, Allen, Catahoula, Evangeline, Natchitoches and Vernon parishes.

&uot;Science has shown for the last 40 years that early bystander CPR combined with early electric therapy can save cardiac arrest victims&uot; – up to 40,000 lives a year – said Tracy Jones, Operation Heartbeat project manager.

But Vernon Stevens, administrator of Riverland Medical Center in Ferriday, pointed out that heart disease is not just a local, but a national problem.

&uot;We see a lot of heart-related diseases, but I&160;would think that would be the leading cause of death anywhere,&uot; Stevens said. Statistics of the number of heart diseases cases the hospital treats were not available as of press time.

But there are steps one can take to lessen the chances of heart disease, according to DHH officials, including the following:

4Get moderate exercise, such as walking or light jogging, for 30 minutes three times a week, said Priscilla Barnes, a Centers for Disease Control prevention specialist working with DHH.

4Consume more high-fiber foods, especially fruits and vegetables – at least three vegetables and two servings of fruit a day.

4Eat only moderate amounts of fat, salt and sugar.

4Drink plenty of fluids.

For his part, Copeland is keeping a close watch on both diet and exercise. &uot;I&160;realized one day that I would either have to do that,&uot; he said, &uot;or suffer the consequences.&uot;