Jennifer ThorsonMarathoner couldn't outrun heart disease risks

Jennifer Thorson was running marathons but couldn't outrun her family history of heart disease and high cholesterol.

She was just 37 when it caught up with her, and a heart attack sent her to emergency surgery. That was August 2011. Her recovery has set her on a course of continued exercise, medication, eating even more healthfully and monitoring her condition more closely. All while she trains to run another marathon.

"My case really highlights how determinant family history can be, and how you can do everything right and it can still happen to you," Thorson said. Almost everything, Thorson admits in hindsight. The best care for vascular disease includes having blood pressure numbers less than 140/90, not using tobacco, taking asprin if needed and keeping "bad" (LDL) cholesterol below 100.

"The only lifestyle choice that I was making prior to my heart attack that wasn't the healthiest was to ignore that high cholesterol and to refuse treatment for it, which I did for about 10 years because I was having kids, and cholesterol medicine and having kids don't go together," said Thorson, now 38. She and her husband, who live in St. Paul, have two sons. "I told myself it was okay not to worry about (that one)."

The heart attack came as a complete surprise, Thorson said. She thought of any number of explanations for the back pain that prompted her to visit the emergency room: straining herself in yoga, heartburn from Thai food, lifting something awkwardly. 

The only clue about what was happening came when a blood test detected an enzyme that the heart secretes during distress. All other tests came back normal.

An angiogram found that she had one artery completely blocked and others with early-stage blockages. She had a stent put in and, once her pain subsided, was discharged. She went to cardiac rehab for six weeks, and then joined a health club at the hospital to exercise under supervision. She soon began running again. Now she is training for the Twin Cities Marathon, feeling stronger and faster. She has even launched a blog, My Life in Red, to write about what she learned as a heart patient.

She's not overlooking any possible symptoms either. 

"I have emailed (my cardiologist) to say, 'I feel this way, should I come in?' I'll call the nurse line, I'll call the doctor," Thorson said. "If you know the risk is there, you might think to yourself, 'I'm in potential danger and should do something about it.'"