Allison Abizaid is the picture of health. Attractive and trim, she glows with well-being and energy. She recently turned 50 but could easily be mistaken for a woman 10 years younger. That’s not surprising, since she has dedicated her entire life to health and fitness—her own and other’s.
By the age of 30, Abizaid, then a resident of the San Francisco Bay area, was a poster child for the California lifestyle. A fitness trainer, lifestyle consultant and bodybuilder, she ran 50 to 70 miles a week, worked out in the gym three hours daily, swam eight miles a week and participated in 100-mile bike trips whenever she could. She followed a strict dietary regimen of mostly organic fruits, vegetables and protein. She was, "a lean, mean, high-performance machine," she says.
"I had the perfect body. I was rock hard and stronger than most men I knew. My body fat was at eight percent!" Abizaid says.
Abizaid also worked hard keeping others fit and healthy. With a dual master's degree in clinical psychology and sports psychology, she’s spent the past three decades working with clients on health and lifestyle issues. In her spare time, she authored dozens of articles on health, fitness and wellbeing.
"My whole life has been devoted to healthy living," she says.
Abizaid’s life changed, how-ever, when she left California in early 2006 to move to Reston, Va., to head up the Health Forward Wellness Center. Business flourished—perhaps a little too much. To keep pace with customer demand, she found herself working long hours and exercising less, and she became sloppy with her diet, too.
"Southern food got the best of me," she laughs. "Out-side of California, I found it more difficult to shop for healthy
foods. With hardly any time to cook, I caved in to eating what was around me—fried and greasy stuff."
Although still trim and fit (at five feet, six inches, she now weighs 135 pounds), Abizaid had put on a few extra pounds, and her body fat was recognizably higher. During her two years in Reston, her body fat rose to 22 percent—still within healthy limits, but hardly a bodybuilder’s ideal physique. Some parts of that she enjoyed. "Hey, it wasn’t all bad," she laughs. "I got my breasts and hips back. I felt and looked more like a woman."
On the other hand, she was feeling increasingly stressed and tired. After a divorce at age 30, she had spent the rest of her 30s and early 40s going at breakneck speed. "The all-work-and-no-play lifestyle was getting to me," she says. "It was impacting my physical and mental wellbeing." When the stress became too much, Abizaid decided to move to Sarasota to be closer to her mother and stepfather.
But instead of finding peace and tranquility here, Abizaid hit the ground running. Within weeks, she was hired as director of a fitness center. Once again, she found herself working 15-hour days, seven days a week.
"My parents passed on their drive and ambition," she says. "Unfortunately, I also got a few unhealthy genes as part of the package."
The DNA hand Abizaid had been dealt included a genetic propensity for hypertension and heart disease. Her mother takes medicine to control her high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Abizaid’s grandfather had died of heart disease, and her maternal uncle has diabetes. When a colleague suggested that she get tested at Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s new Cardiovascular Disease Assessment Center, Abizaid initially shrugged it off.
"I was healthier than anyone I knew. Why would I need testing?" she says.But Abizaid understood enough about heart disease and hereditary predisposition to recognize the very real risks associated with a family history of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. After her initial response, she looked into the facility’s program and liked what she saw. The center employs a 10-factor testing program pioneered by cardiologist Jay N. Cohn, M.D., a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota.
The two-hour series of non-invasive tests assesses vascular and cardiac health and identifies early cardiovascular disease. Some tests identify problems with blood vessels, others flag heart abnormalities, and others reveal markers that influence the development of cardiovascular disease. By identifying individuals with early indications of disease, doctors and patients can attack the problem with lifestyle changes and medicine to prevent future damage.
"These tests allow us to focus on early disease detection rather than risk factors, because a lot of patients with multiple risk factors do not have disease; and, more importantly, there are people who do not have risk factors, but do have disease," says Dr. Miglena Entcheva, director of the program. "Today’s advanced medical therapies can slow or halt the progression of cardiovascular disease if it’s detected early. There’s no good reason not to test early. We’re screening patients in their 30s and 40s now. It’s a significant step in the management of this disease."
Abizaid admits she wasn’t entirely surprised when she found that she didn’t pass with flying colors. In fact, her tests showed that she had abnormally high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. In addition, her small artery elasticity was abnormal, indicating a potential problem down the road.
"A reduction in small artery elasticity serves as a useful marker for pre-hypertensive patients at risk for cardiovascular morbid events," says Entcheva. "In Allison’s case, this is an indicator that her borderline blood pressure needs to be treated to prevent future events—despite the fact that she is trim, exercising on a regular basis and eating healthy." Preventing potential problems from developing is better than finding problems and trying to correct the damage they’ve already done, she adds.
Abizaid couldn’t agree more.
"I’m just thankful we caught this," she says. "I still have time to turn it around. Now, it’s up to me to do it."
"Because she’s so knowledgeable about health and fitness, we elected to give her a few months to turn this around with a change in diet and lifestyle," says Entcheva. "If we don’t see improvement, we might recommend certain medications that can significantly reduce these problems."
Abizaid didn’t think twice—or look back. She took immediate action, beginning with buying a blood pressure monitoring system so she could check her blood pressure twice daily. She replaced all the junk she had allowed to creep into her diet with a regimen of vegetables and proteins. She took up juicing again, and returned to a strict exercise program. She also left her job—working 70-hour weeks was not healthy for her. Now she’s a freelance fitness coach, and she says her experience has given her more empathy for the people she coaches.
"I look at this as an opportunity to learn," she says. "I work with cardiac patients all the time. Before I was the coach—now I’m both a coach and a patient. That makes me a better trainer and consultant. I can see it from all sides now."
Allison’s experience illustrates why even people who don’t think they have a problem might consider cardiac screening. Getting checked for blood pressure is not always enough.
"People come to us with perfectly great numbers but show signs of carotid thickness after testing," explains Entcheva. "Plaque can be building without showing up in blood pressure or cholesterol—thanks to hereditary, age and gender factors." Allison is living proof that being fit can’t eliminate such factors or the heart disease that can result from them.
"As a society, we don’t advocate for early cardiac disease detection, and that’s a mistake," Entcheva says. "We have mammograms and colonoscopies—but we ignore cardiac screening. And 70 percent of all cardiac testing is done on males—not females! This is sad, considering that heart disease is the top killer of American women. One in four women dies of heart disease. But death isn’t the only problem. If it’s not fatal, heart disease inevitably leads to disability and a decreased quality of life."
February is National Heart Disease Awareness Month, and Feb. 6 is National Wear Red Day. "We need to make every effort to raise women’s awareness about heart disease and encourage them to take action to live a healthier life," says Entcheva. "Make sure to wear red that day to show that you take women's health to heart."
"My mother and I will be proudly dressed in red that day," she says. "You better believe it! This is one holiday I can really put my heart into!"
Friday, Feb. 6, 2009, is National Wear Red Day, when Americans nationwide will take women’s health to heart by wearing red to show their support for women's heart disease awareness.
Nearly twice as many women in the United States die of heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases as from all forms of cancer, including breast cancer.
Coronary heart disease, which causes heart attack, is the leading cause of death for American women.
Source: American Heart Association
Cardiovascular Disease Assessment Center at Sarasota Memorial Hospital; (941) 917-6969. Cost: $650; insurance covers a portion in some cases.
Sister to Sister is a foundation dedicated solely to bringing free heart disease screenings and heart-healthy information and support to women to prevent heart disease; www.womansheartday.org.
WomenHeart: the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease is the nation’s only patient advocacy organization servicing the 8 million American women living with heart disease; www.womenheart.org.
The Heart Truth is a national awareness campaign for women about heart disease; www.hearttruth.gov.