With age comes wisdom, the saying goes, but Jacqueline Alikhaani wishes she’d been more aware and informed about heart health and diabetes when she was younger.
“If I had known then what I know now, I would have been a lot more proactive,” said the Los Angeles resident. “I didn’t know how diabetes really complicates heart disease and really contributes to it.”
Alikhaani is not alone – only about half of people age 45 and older with type 2 diabetes understand their increased risk for developing heart disease or have discussed their risk with their doctor, according to a survey conducted by The Harris Poll.
Today, Alikhaani is making up for lost time by sharing her hard-earned knowledge as an Ambassador for Know Diabetes by Heart, a collaboration between the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association to raise awareness about the link between diabetes and cardiovascular disease. She volunteers to encourage people to be proactive and get as educated as possible about their health.
“You really have to ask questions and understand how it all works,” she said.
When Alikhaani found out as an adult that she had a congenital heart condition, she felt frightened and overwhelmed.
“I cried for days because I was so scared, I was going to die within weeks,” she said. “But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise that they found it sooner than later. Usually, they don’t find it until they’re doing an autopsy.”
While she was busy learning about and managing her congenital heart disease, she was unable to focus on a doctor’s casual observation that she was pre-diabetic and did not really understand what it meant.
“I thought, ‘OK, great, I’m only pre-diabetic. I’m not really diabetic yet, so I don’t have to worry about it much,” she said.
In retrospect, she said, finding out she was pre-diabetic should have been an urgent wake-up call for her to make major lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, eating healthier and exercising regularly.
In 2012 Alikhaani suffered a transient ischemic attack or TIA, a temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain that’s often called a “mini-stroke.” A few years later, she was diagnosed with full-blown type 2 diabetes.
Before she got the condition under control, she wound up in the emergency room five times within a few months due to a variety of issues.
Her healthcare experiences inspired and helped her to realize that her health should be a priority. She’s been managing her diabetes and cardiovascular risk with lifestyle changes.
“I’ve lost more than 20 pounds since the beginning of the year, which is much better than I was doing before,” Alikhaani said. “I’m trying to eat more fresh vegetables and fruits and less carbs, and my husband and I try to better plan what we eat as a family. When we eat out, we decided that it is a good idea to order one entrée and split it. That way, you save money, and at the same time you’re eating healthier-size portions.”
Still, like a lot of people with type 2 diabetes, Alikhaani has an ongoing struggle with eating healthy.
“If I’m dealing with a lot of stress, I just want to pick up some comfort food, like carbs and sweets,” said Alikhaani. “Managing stress is really important, because it can knock you off the wagon.”
But, she has help when things get tough. Her husband, Sadegh Alikhaani, is her champion and partner in health advocacy. A volunteer for the American Heart Association and a heart disease survivor, Sadegh credits Jacqueline with saving his life 10 years ago when she convinced him to go to the hospital after he had chest pains.
“I’ve never seen a more persistent person in my life when it comes to keeping people on the right track for being healthy,” he said. “Every moment of every day, she’s working on solutions and spreading her knowledge. Even when we go to a restaurant, she shares with the waiters and others about the importance of healthy food choices.”
Jacqueline laughs as she recalls sort of “monopolizing” her family reunion in Las Vegas a few years ago and putting on a full-blown health presentation, complete with slides, raffles and giveaways.
“They had a blast, and at the same time, we got them to share their health care experiences,” she said. “My husband and I started this health care advocacy journey to help ourselves, but it’s really evolved to help our family and everyone around us.”