Jennie Garth
Speaks from the Heart

She plays a guidance counselor on the TV series “90210,” but education is a big part
of actress Jennie Garth’s life off screen, too. Her most personal effort
is educating women on heart health as spokesperson for the American Heart Association.

By Allan Richter

February 2009

Actress Jennie Garth, 36, hit American living rooms in a big way by playing Kelly Taylor in the hit 1990s television series “Beverly Hills 90210,” a role she reprised last year in “90210.” In the updated version, Garth’s Taylor is back at West Beverly High, but as a guidance counselor instead of a student. That mentoring persona may not be such a stretch for Garth.

“Beverly Hills 90210’s” Tory Spelling, Shannen Doherty and Jennie Garth, left to right, in 1992.

 

Garth has taught good nutritional habits and advised teens about positive body image in a home video. And to shed light on problems in the mental health care system, she starred in and executive produced “Without Consent,” a television movie about a rebellious teen committed to a psychiatric facility by her out-of-touch, career-focused parents.

That educational thread in her Hollywood career would be the influence of her father, John, who was an official with the Illinois Department of Education and helped pioneer the state’s adult ed program. Her father also looms large in what is probably the most personal role she has taken on—that of spokeswoman for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women heart health awareness program.

With her actor-husband Peter Facinelli and daughters Luca Bella, Lola Ray and Fiona Eve, Garth divides her personal life between the family’s home in Los Angeles and a ranch in Northern California that harks back to her Midwestern childhood. Garth grew up in Urbana, Illinois, on a 25-acre horse ranch with six siblings from her parents’ previous marriages.

Heart Disease :
It’s Not Just Your
Husband’s Affliction

Just 20 years ago, women focused their attention on “women’s” health issues like breast cancer and other reproductive afflictions. Heart risk, the conventional wisdom said, was mainly a male concern.

The statistics bust that myth. Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, kills about 450,000 women a year versus 410,000 men in the US, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

“Women need to know, number one, that heart disease is an equal opportunity killer. We as women are equally as vulnerable to heart disease as men,” says Jennifer Mieres, MD, director of nuclear cardiology at NYU School of Medicine, and spokesperson for the AHA.

Heart disease has gender-specific nuances, however, in how it shows up and when. Mieres says that it appears 10 to 15 years later in women (right in the menopause years, after age 55 or so).

Symptoms differ, too. While men report classic chest pain or pressure, women often feel something that resembles heartburn and feel jaw pain or shortness of breath, Mieres says.

Fatigue and low stamina, as in a change in a woman’s exercise capacity, can also be a sign of heart disease.

Exactly why the symptoms are different in men and women is not entirely clear. “The working hypothesis,” Mieres says, “we believe, is that women’s natural hormones (estrogen) may play a role in some of the differences in symptoms. We’re beginning to scratch the surface with some of the gender differences.”

Mieres is leading a two-year study on how to accurately diagnose heart disease in women. “The plain treadmill stress test, which works well in men, is not as accurate in women,” she asserts. The 824-woman study is looking at whether practitioners should employ a combination of the treadmill test and nuclear cardiac imaging, in which an imaging tracer highlights blood flow when a person is at rest versus exercising.

“It will give us a recipe for when a woman shows up in her doctor’s office with chest pain,” saysMieres. “This will give us a roadmap for how to go about testing them.” Full results are expected this December, with some preliminary findings due next month.

“It’s important that women be their best advocate,” Mieres says. “Develop a partnership with your doctor. Go in with your list of questions. Take time to read a bit. Know your risk. There’s a tendency for people to go for their annual visit, and they’re sort of bystanders.”
—A.R.

That pastoral life was interrupted when her father was diagnosed with coronary heart disease before he reached age 40. From then on, his daughter says, he battled stroke damage and endured kidney loss and multiple heart surgeries until his death last March at age 74.

“He had a pure will to stay alive and not miss anything,” the actress tells Energy Times. “He loved life and he did not want to leave and went out fighting until the bitter end. At that point his heart was just so damaged there was nothing we could do anymore.”

Though her father did not have it, high blood pressure runs in his side of the family, Garth says. And Garth herself sees a cardiologist regularly; she has a leaky heart valve, a treatable affliction in which slight amounts of blood flow in reverse.

Last year, Garth split and donated her $100,000 winnings from a celebrity version of “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” to American Heart Association chapters in Los Angeles and in Champagne-Urbana, where she said her father had received life-saving cardiac treatment.

Energy Times: How has your family history affected your approach to health?
Jennie Garth: Since I’ve been so personally touched by heart disease, it’s changed my life and the life of all of my family members. I know a lot more about it than I would like to know. But now that I do I think, “I am healthy and people seem to want to hear what I have to say occasionally,” so I like to educate people about it. It’s sort of given me a purpose, given me a way to use my celebrity for a very good reason instead of just shopping and doing other useless things.

ET: What key pieces of advice or education about heart health are you offering as an American Heart Association spokesperson?

JG: I’m trying to get the message out that heart disease is the number one killer of American women. Nobody knows about it. Nobody even thinks that women can get heart disease. They think of an older guy or man with a belly, maybe a smoker, you know. Those are typical heart disease people. But it strikes women, and it is silent and deadly. The good thing is that it is almost avoidable if you take care of yourself, if you know your risk factors and if you go to the doctor and ask for certain tests to find out your heart health. I recommend that. I started doing that when I was 30.

ET: What is your approach to diet and fitness?

JG: I don’t eat red meat. I don’t eat a lot of artery-clogging fried fast foods. I hardly ever eat fast foods. And I’m always on the move. I don’t sit around and let myself get lethargic and let my arteries clog. I’m always on the run.

But even if you are always moving...I have a friend who, at 39, was always fit and always moving. She was an active mother of two, always on the go. She had hereditary issues and was not feeling well, and was always having anxiety. She had no idea what it was and finally found out that her main artery was 95% clogged. At 39 she had a triple bypass and has since been doing very well and has changed her life.

ET: I read that you’re a vegetarian.

JG: No, I’m not a true vegetarian. I eat chicken and occasionally fish. I hate eating animals, but I have to get some protein in and the best way for me to do that would be to eat chicken or fish, although my kids eat tofu. I also take a multivitamin with iron. We eat organic food whenever possible. We eat eggs from our chickens.

ET: Are there certain foods that you find that you must eat organic, that you won’t eat if it’s not organic?

JG: Chicken. But whenever you go to a restaurant you don’t know if it’s organic or not, so that’s tricky. I only buy organic chicken. There’s something about added hormones and chemicals that freak me out.

ET: You said you’re always on the move. Is that something you make an effort to do or is it because of your career demands? You made it through the semi-finals of “Dancing with the Stars,” for example.

JG: You know what, it’s just who I am. I’m always outside with either my horses or cooking in the kitchen or taking care of my three girls, running them around with no time to rest in the day.

Garth, front right, and the “Beverly Hills 90210” cast, 1991

 

Three times a week I try to do the elliptical, which is a cardio machine, and I would love to do more, but that is all I’m getting in. If I had time I would do yoga in addition to the cardio. Yoga for me is blood flowing to all parts of my body and really recognizing that, and appreciating my internal organs and appreciating everything and having that time to focus on my body. I do agree with core training, core strengthening and cardio to get your heart going, your blood pumping, and that’s very common in yoga. You have to have a very strong core, basically the center of your torso, your body, where all your strength comes from—the muscles around the spine and abdomen are what keep everything in line and your legs and arms moving the way they should, if you have a strong core.

ET: You have what’s known in a layperson’s terms as a leaky valve in your heart. When was that discovered, and what do you do for it?

JG: It was discovered on my first trip to the heart doctor about six years ago. I go to Dr. PK Shah in Los Angeles. I met him doing a Larry King show for the American Heart Association. In going to him they did an [examination] of my heart and saw that. It is something that I know I have, and I just go in every year to make sure that it isn’t getting worse. It’s not uncommon, but it is something you have to keep an eye on.

ET: We know that stress can contribute to heart problems. Do you have any particular philosophy when dealing with stress?

JG: I’m a true believer that everything happens for a reason, and you know you can’t really get stressed out. In the big picture of life, especially since I’ve lost my father, none of it really matters, nothing of what we’re doing really matters. Nothing you have to get done really matters all that much, enough to make your blood pressure rise, you know, so it’s just about taking it all with a grain of salt and realizing what’s important and not letting stress get to you. Besides giving you high blood pressure, it can [contribute to] cancer. There are a multitude of reasons to avoid getting stressed out. Nobody wants to be around you when you get stressed out, either.

Losing my dad was such a hard thing for me—it just put everything into perspective. My priorities shifted even more than they already had, which is a lot. My agents and managers in the business will tell you that I’m a pain in the butt now because I don’t care about work, I don’t care about anything other than my family. And helping other people and other families. I can take or leave any job you bring to me because it doesn’t really fit into my priorities.

ET: Those being your family and your health.

JG: And my ability to use my celebrity to educate other people. If I was just Jennie Smith walking down the sidewalk, I don’t think people would be as interested in what I have to say. For whatever reason, people are. I don’t quite understand it myself, but I’m given the opportunity to talk about things so I want it to be helpful to other people.

ET: How has your heightened awareness about maintaining good health affected how you raise your children?

JG: I feed my kids really healthy, clean foods, I teach them how to take care of themselves and make sure they get enough activity, physical exercise and have a positive body image. It’s all about having healthy-minded and -bodied children.

ET: What are some activities that work and really motivate kids to get moving?

JG: You’ve got to do it with them. You have to set an example for your children. My husband produces and writes so he tends to be on the computer a lot through his work, emailing, corresponding with people, and my kids had a tendency to stand in front of the computer a lot, playing games, whatever it is. So it’s just about motivating them to do something else, to give them another option instead of just letting the computer baby-sit your kids. It’s about proactive parenting, being a part of their lives, motivating them, encouraging them.

ET: Your ranch and its animals also no doubt provide a healthy life for your family.

JG: There’s such a peaceful energy exchange when the animals are living in harmony. I have horses that run up to feed in the pasture and I have a goat that loves being fed by hand. There’s just something about that relationship that’s very peaceful for me and elemental. It really brings me down to what it’s all about. My husband on the other hand is from New York; he can care less about the animals on my farm.

I was for many years without my house and without my farm, during my 20s, and I knew I needed to get back to that. That keeps me grounded. Animals and being outdoors, having a place to be free, is what keeps me happy. I want to give my girls the same sort of freedom I had growing up in that environment.

ET: Like your father, with whom you share a birthday, you seem to want to educate.

JG: My father and I were sort of connected on another level. We were closer than two seeds. We were two peas in a pod. We look alike. We think alike. We’re very quiet people. We enjoyed the outdoors. There were just so many similarities. I was his birthday present. He used to tell my mom that I was the best birthday present he ever got.

It’s sort of in my genetic makeup to be helpful and to want to educate people. For me to just be an actress, I just feel sort of trivial and unworthy somehow. I think sharing with others puts the focus outside of yourself and your problems. It creates more space in your life for positive energy, and that’s a cure-all.

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