Of the 5,000 participants registered for this year's Alaska Heart Run, 141 were invited to hit the trail wearing red superhero capes, signifying that they are survivors of heart disease.

The annual Anchorage event, scheduled for this Saturday, was established to raise money for heart disease research and community programs, but it's also about advocating for better health and educating the public about heart disease.

"Roughly 80 percent of heart disease is preventable through education and lifestyle changes," said Kristin Luby, senior development director for the American Heart Association in Anchorage. "The Heart Run encourages people to participate. It's just taking those first steps in leading a healthier life that are so important."

That's a call to action that resonates with Dr. Matthew Schnellbaecher, a cardiologist at Alaska Native Medical Center, who said he wishes more people knew about the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle.

"Our modern life, with elevators and parking spaces several feet from the front door of Costco, makes things more convenient, but it's detrimental to cardiac health," Schnellbaecher said. "Even doing little things throughout the day will help with heart health. It's not rocket science, but it's amazing that some people don't fully appreciate how bad it is for their bodies to be sedentary."

Heart disease causes about one in four deaths in the U.S., and among indigenous Americans, including Alaska Natives, it's second only to cancer as a leading cause of death. But the term "heart disease" is broad, according to Kelly St. John, an advanced nurse practitioner in the cardiology unit at ANMC.

"It isn't just heart blockages, it's the entire spectrum," St. John said. "That can be hypertension, valve-related issues, congenital heart issues, as well as blockages."

St. John said within the Alaska Native population, particularly in rural villages, there is a higher incidence of valve problems. Untreated strep infections can turn into rheumatic fever, which can lead to a valve not working properly -- either it's too tight or it's leaky.

"It basically puts them at a risk of valve failure where the valve would need to be replaced," St. John said. "Valvular issues are actually higher than coronary disease amongst our population."

Schnellbaecher said there are numerous red flags to watch out for when it comes to heart conditions, including chest pressure or discomfort associated with activity or emotional upset. Discomfort can be located in the chest, can radiate to the neck or can be in one or both arms. It's of greater concern when accompanied by shortness of breath or sweating, he added.

"Those are the most typical," Schnellbaecher said. "That's all for artery blockage." These symptoms are more concerning when accompanied by shortness of breath or sweating, he added; in that case they can indicate a more immediate threat. "Heart failure symptoms are shortness of breath with exercise and having to wake up (at night) to catch your breath."

St. John said it's important to note that heart disease isn't just something that affects people who are overweight or seem unhealthy: "It can be genetic. You can have essentially no risk factors and still have heart disease. It's not selective to any one age, sex or person. There are marathoners that have heart disease and heart attacks."

Though heart health problems come in many forms, St. John said recommendations for prevention are largely universal: Maintain a healthy weight; get 30 minutes of aerobic walking daily; reduce salt, cholesterol, processed food and alcohol; and have regular visits with a health care provider to check blood pressure and screen for diabetes.

Traditional Alaska Native foods and gathering practices, which combine healthier eating with aerobic activity, can also contribute to better heart health. Although it's only April, plants used in traditional foods are already starting to pop up around the state. For a tasty twist on a healthy tradition, gather chickweed and nettle leaves for fresh homemade pesto to enjoy with whole grain pasta, fish or chicken -- or freeze to enjoy later in the year.

Chickweed Pesto

4 cups fresh chickweed

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon sea salt

Ground pepper to taste

1/3 cup toasted pine nuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, or pecans

Hard cheese, such as parmesan (optional)


1. Rinse and dry chickweed.

2. In food processor, combine chickweed, garlic, salt, pepper, seeds/nuts and cheese (if using).

3. Add olive oil and continue processing until it reaches a paste-like consistency.

Nesto (Alaskan Nettle Pesto)

2-3 cups blanched nettle leaves

1 1/2 cups pecans (can also use pine nuts or walnuts instead)

4 cloves garlic, peeled

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded

3/4 cup olive oil

1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon salt

Pinch of ground black pepper


1. Collect fresh nettles -- about 6-8 cups will yield 2-3 cups of leaves.

2. Rinse well, remove and discard all stems from leaves. Blanch leaves quickly in boiling water. Drain water, but save for nettle tea!

3. Add 2 cups of blanched nettle leaves to pecans, garlic, cheese, olive oil, salt and pepper in food processor. Blend well until mixture becomes thick green paste.

Recipes courtesy ANTHC Diabetes Program.

?? This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 150,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.?

This article was produced by the special content department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with ANTHC. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.