By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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Hortensia Perez ignored her doctors’ advice for years. Exercise and eat healthy, they urged the high blood pressure patient. But it wasn’t until last fall, when her doctor added two new diagnoses — high cholesterol and the early stages of diabetes — that she started making changes.

She exercised more and ditched the tortillas, sodas and McDonald’s hamburgers she often ate. And last month, Perez finished a four-month health education class in East Palo Alto, California.

“I like everything about the program,” said the 48-year-old housekeeper, who was among 75 participants who registered for the program at Ravenswood Family Health Center. “But I like most how they talk to you and how they explain things to you.”

The participants met once a month with instructors to learn about the risks of high blood pressure and how to reduce stress and eat healthy. San Francisco-area chef and cookbook author Anna V. Zulaica taught them how to cook meals with less salt and fat, and eat the right portions of meats and vegetables. Other sessions included Zumba lessons and CPR training.

Text version of “Feel the Pressure” graphic

Martha Escobedo, a medical assistant and health coach at the clinic, said the high blood pressure patients she recruited to participate were highly motivated to become healthier. Many have signed up for Zumba classes and have prepared the recipes they learned in the program, she said.

“They are realizing that being healthy doesn’t have to be boring,” Escobedo said.

The Ravenswood Family Health Center provides health care to more than 14,000 low-income adults and children in the East Palo Alto area. More than a third are uninsured and almost three-quarters are Hispanic or Latino. Doctors also see black, Hawaiian and Tongan patients. The blood pressure classes were given in English, Spanish and Tongan.

Education programs like the one in California are crucial to help families get healthy, said Sharon Cox, a registered dietitian at Parkland Health & Hospital System in Dallas. “We should start with children,” she said, because the unhealthy habits of adults can affect their children and the generations to come.

Cox works primarily with black and Hispanic patients and said many don’t take their health seriously until they develop a chronic condition.

Nearly two-thirds of participants were Hispanic or Latino. Despite being slightly less likely than whites to have high blood pressure, Hispanics are much more likely to have uncontrolled high blood pressure, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High blood pressure is most common among blacks, the data show. In addition, high blood pressure is more common among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders than whites, older CDC statistics show.

Escobedo and five colleagues received special training for the program, learning effective techniques to encourage patients to lead healthy lives. Program organizers estimate that participants’ systolic blood pressure – the top number in a blood pressure reading – dropped by an average of 10 points.

The program was funded by a donation from John Sobrato, a local philanthropist who donated the funds to the American Heart Association Western States Affiliate’s Silicon Valley office. In addition, the office gave the clinic several blood pressure monitors donated by Omron Healthcare. The company recently donated 400 monitors to the AHA to distribute to communities in need.

The health center will provide the high blood pressure program again in 2017.

Hortensia Perez (third from left) with her family at the graduation of her son, TK

Hortensia Perez (third from left) with her family at the graduation of her son, Jose Amador.

For Perez, the program was the first time she received practical guidance about how to cook healthy foods and add exercise to her routine. Most of her doctors had never provided instructions on how to successfully make those changes. Instead, she said, they put her on medications and advised her to eat better and exercise.

Today, her blood pressure is back to normal and she has lost 10 pounds.

Perez’s healthy habits have even rubbed off on her husband, Luciano, who has diabetes, and their four children who live with them — although they pass on her green smoothies.

Photo courtesy of Hortensia Perez