Kathy Pacella with daughter Brittany and other family members

Kathy Pacella knows all too well how devastating heart disease can be.

She lost three grandparents to heart disease before she was a born and the fourth when she was a young child. At 16, she was there when her father died at age 51 from cardiac arrest. Her mother had a cardiac arrest and died at 63.

Aunts, uncles and cousins have died of heart disease or stroke. Pacella, 50, lost a brother two years ago, and both of her surviving siblings have required stents and are managing Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and arrhythmia. Her twin sister recently underwent a triple bypass.

Pacella’s relatives grappled with risk factors such as high blood pressure, smoking and being overweight. Hoping to avoid the same fate, she kept active and maintained a healthy weight following her father’s death. But when she began having chest pains as a young mother, then 24, she realized lifestyle factors may not be enough to overcome such a strong family history.

“After I became a mom, I wanted to do what I could because I knew they needed me,” said Pacella, who has four children.

Even with heart disease and stroke affecting so many in her family, Pacella doesn’t recall doctors ever talking about how to lower her own risks as she was growing up. She wanted to change that for the next generation.

Kathy Pacella (front) with, from left, her son Tony, husband David, daughter Krista, son Josh and daughter Brittany.

Kathy Pacella (front) with, from left, her son Tony, husband David, daughter Krista, son Josh and daughter Brittany.

Heart disease and stroke are the No. 1 and No. 5 causes of death among Americans, according to the American Heart Association. Although family history is a major risk factor, lifestyle factors such as diet, weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, smoking and blood sugar also play an important role in lowering risk.

Pacella began volunteering for AHA in high school, after the death of her father. She now works for the organization as a youth market director in St. Michaels, Maryland. She hopes to give parents and children a better heart-health education than she received as a child.

“They’re getting a lot more information about health and that makes a huge difference in keeping people healthy,” she said.

Pacella hasn’t escaped the risks of heart disease and stroke. She is a breast cancer survivor and had two strokes that doctors said were caused by cancer treatment. She has occasionally experienced chest pains over the years, but testing has never revealed the cause. She doesn’t have high blood pressure or high cholesterol but is regularly screened for both.

Pacella’s daughter Krista was diagnosed at age 20 with high blood pressure and is managing it with medication.

“You can do all the right things and still be at risk,” Pacella said.

Pacella’s passion for helping kids reduce their risks extended to her eldest daughter Brittany Pacella, 28, who has worked for AHA in Jacksonville, Florida, since 2013.

Like her mom, Brittany works on AHA’s youth-oriented programs, including Jump Rope For Heart, Hoops For Heart and National Wear Red Day “Red Out” events.

“I’d seen my whole life what it was like for my mom to lose so many people, and I really wanted to do what I could to change people’s lives for the better,” Brittany said.

Other than her family history, Brittany doesn’t have any risk factors for heart disease. Even so, the former college athlete stays focused on her health, a priority she credits to her mom.

“My mom told us, ‘This has gone on way too long in our family and we have to make a conscious decision about how we treat our bodies and take care of our hearts,’ ” Brittany said.

Pacella said her family history of heart disease drives her to raise awareness and to push for better treatments and expanded CPR training.

“I want my kids and their kids to live long, healthy lives,” she said. “But I want all people to benefit.”

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Photos courtesy of Kathy and Brittany Pacella