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Why one community is at risk for heart disease

“Today” takes a look at the high rate of cardiovascular illness in the residents of Niagara County, N.Y., and the doctor fighting the trend.
/ Source: TODAY

Part one of the week-long series “Heart Smarts” takes a look at coronary heart disease. Heart disease is the leading killer of both women and men in the United States, and each year more than 1 million people die of cardiovascular diseases. The “Today” show profiles one community struggling to deal with the disease.

Is it something in the water or in the air? Is it the lake effect snow or the famous chicken wings?

John Murray, a 59-year-old living in New York's Niagara-Buffalo region, is painfully aware that the area in which he lives has one of the highest heart disease rates in the nation.

John Murray: There's a lot of overweight people. We have a pretty sedentary lifestyle.

Murray had a stroke a year ago. After a PET scan, doctors found he had coronary heart disease.

Murray: At any kind of stress, because I have blockages in the main coronary arteries, not enough blood gets through so my blood pressure goes up, so I'm a good candidate for a heart attack.

Cardiologist Michael Merhige of the Heart Center of Niagara isn't sure what is causing a heart disease epidemic in the Niagara-Buffalo area. But he is trying to do something about it.

Dr. Michael Merhige: The U.S. death rate from heart disease of all kinds is about 250 per 100,000. And in Niagara County, we are looking at 388 per 100,000.

Merhige recommends cholesterol-lowering medication, an exercise program and a diet low in fat and high in fruits and vegetables. He's also using non-invasive imagery to detect heart disease and monitor his patients' progress.

Merhige: Now that's your old stress, and that's your new stress. Murray: That's amazing.Merhige: I'd say the same thing. It's amazing. Murray: So I can go climb Mount Fuji?Merhige: Yes.

After eight months of following Merhige's recommendations, Murray's scans now show that his heart disease has dramatically improved — something Merhige is hoping for all his patients.

Wyndola McClain, 55, is also suffering from heart disease.

Wyndola McClain: A couple of years ago, I was experiencing a shortness of breath and mild pains in the chest and I didn't know what it was.

Wyndola consulted with Merhige.

Her PET scan showed a mild buildup of plaque. She was ordered to stop smoking and take medication to lower her cholesterol.

McClain: With the medication that I take, and the exercise and changing my diet, it started to clear.

Heart disease can also be related to family history. Anthony Girasole's chest pains started 10 years ago when he was just 34. He was also diagnosed with a mild plaque buildup. His father had his first heart attack when he was 39.

Anthony Girasole: I thought, you know, I am on the same path as my father. He had a massive heart attack and then open heart surgery.

But with exercise and a diet that avoids fatty foods, Girasole has kept his heart disease in check. In fact, Merhige's program seems to be having a positive effect: Niagara-Buffalo's death rates due to heart disease have dropped, from 17 percent in 2002 to 7 percent in 2003.