The idea behind Nancy and Eric Fields renewing their wedding vows in 2004 after 30 years of marriage came straight from the heartliterally.
Earlier that year during a stroll around the couple's lake in Cordova, Tenn., Eric, then 56, noticed a sharp, indigestion-like pain in his chest. As the pain worsened and antacids proved ineffective, Nancy implored her husband to see a doctor.
It's a good thing she did; two of Eric's arteries were nearly blocked. His doctor had to promptly insert wire mesh stents in the arteries to keep them open.
Nancy is no stranger to heart problems either. She has three leaky heart valvesa condition that, over time, can lead to an enlarged heart.
According to new research, Nancy and Eric aren't the only couple battling heart health problems together. A report published in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggests that it's common for partners to struggle simultaneously with issues such as weight or smoking, or share other risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure or cholesterol.
The couple didn't let their health problems get the best of them, though. Instead, they set out to tackle them together by recommitting to each other through their renewed vows, and by committing to a healthier lifestyle, which meant eating a healthful, low-fat diet and exercising regularly.
"Lifestyle changes can be difficult to implement," says Dr. Mindy Gentry, a cardiologist at the Medical College of Georgia, in Augusta. "Whether it's a spouse, friend or neighbor, having someone to make changes with makes a big difference in follow-through," she says. "And it's much easier to eat healthfully if everyone in the household is on board."
Nancy made sure of that. First, she overhauled the couple's pantry by clearing out all foods that contained trans fatsfoods like crackers, cookies and other snack items. The fats, created when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil, increase the shelf life of food but also raise your "bad" cholesterol levels, increasing the risk for heart disease.
"We also cut down on unhealthy carbs, and added whole grains to our diets," says Nancy, 58, who started choosing whole-wheat instead of white pasta and lean proteins like chicken rather than pork or beef. The duo began eating more fish and nuts, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and can help lower the risk of heart disease.
Exercise also helped them get their hearts in shape. "We started walking two miles a day, seven days a week," Nancy says. If they are traveling, they walk at a mall or on a treadmill. It seems to be working. While Nancy didn't need to lose weight, Eric has lost about 40 pounds over the past five years.
The best part, Nancy says, is that they've supported each other through it all. "These changes have made a big difference in our health and have brought us closer together as a couple, but I don't think either of us could have done it alone."