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Identifying Silent Risks For Heart Disease

Maintaining an active lifestyle and healthy diet may not be enough to reduce your risk of heart disease.
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You may think the right prescription for maintaining a healthy heart is as simple as a healthy diet and plenty of exercise. Experts say that's a good place to start. But you could be living with a silent risk you may not be aware of. Dr. Tonya Henderson, a pediatrician in Hillcrest, had been living a very active life. She and her husband, Mark, an ER doctor at Kaiser in Mission Gorge, enjoyed plenty of exercise together: running marathons, cycling and raising a family of four, including 6-year-old twins, in Rancho Penasquitos.

Tonya said staying fit was her way of having fun, relieving stress and keeping in shape. Neither she nor her husband ever suspected that disease would strike the very heart of their family.

Two years ago, everything changed. Tonya ran a half-marathon, and after the race, collapsed. She said she felt tired and a little sick, but never felt any chest pain.

While in the emergency room, doctors heard a heart murmur that Tonya says she had ignored since the age of 12. Her husband was aware of the problem, but says he thought his wife was too young and healthy to have any problems.

They were wrong. Doctors told Tonya she needed surgery to replace a shrinking heart valve. Over the years, the condition had caused her heart to get larger, as it worked to compensate for the defective valve. The silent risk inside of her made the danger of sudden death very real, despite her active lifestyle.

The family has launched a Web site, Team T, which explains how Tonya's valve-replacement surgery saved her life. The site's goal is to raise awareness about heart disease and to end misconceptions about risks.

The American Heart Association estimates 1 to 2 percent of all Americans are living with the same problem.

Tonya said none of the Henderson children have inherited her heart valve defect.

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