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Continuing to celebrate birthdays

So I reached a milestone birthday last week. For over two decades I anticipated what this birthday would be like. No, it wasn't a big decade birthday like 40, 50 or 60. It wasn't a magic age that I could retire, and it wasn't even a 5-year mark. I turned the same age that my father was when he died. I've always wondered how I would feel about turning that age ... 54.

When he died I knew he was taken too young. But I always figured I'd make it to his age because I am relatively healthy. To me, he had been healthy and strong when I was a little girl. But when I reached my 20s and he reached his late 40s and early 50s, his health began to decline. He developed diabetes and heart disease. He had a heart attack, but I thought his medical procedure, angioplasty, fixed him and he would be fine.

His second heart attack killed him.

I was shocked. I was 26. Losing a parent at a young age forces you to face reality. No one is invincible.

When my blood pressure starting climbing, I figured I'd better take care of the problem before I ended up like my dad. The doctor wanted me to take medication, but I wanted to try alternatives first.

I lowered my salt intake. That was really difficult. Everything has salt unless it's homemade. And if you don't put salt in homemade food it can taste pretty blah, until you get used to it.

I followed The DASH diet (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension), which my daughter studied and helped me follow. I asked the vendors at the Duluth Farmer's Market to make special low- or no-salt pasties.

It's hard to forget old habits. When my husband made me a low-salt dinner, he asked, "Naomi what are you doing?" when I automatically reached for the salt shaker. Once I got used to a low-salt diet, everything, at a restaurant or a friend's house, tasted much too salty.

Yoga helps reduce blood pressure. My dear friend from college sent me a paperback book on yoga and said she would walk me through it via telephone. (This was before the days of Skype.) Over the years, I signed up for various yoga classes here in Duluth. Sooner or later I would drop out.

But still my blood pressure remained too high. I started to worry about having a stroke or getting kidney disease. I purchased a device that slows down your breathing. You put a band around your chest and breath to the sound of tones. The interactive breathing sessions helped me feel relaxed and calm. At first I used it every night, but the novelty wore away.

Weight Watchers is also in the mix of this effort. I did lose some weight and keep it off. The three best things I learned from Weight Watchers was to look at the back of a can or a box to see the ingredients, weigh my food to estimate portion sizes and write down what I ate. Looking at the back of packages taught me that while an item may be low in calories, it had a high chance of containing a lot of sodium.

Finally I agreed to take medication. The doctor prescribed two different pills to take at the same time. One of the pills made me feel extremely tired. I decided there is no sense in living if I had to be that tired all the time. So I omitted the pill that caused the fatigue.

Two years ago I began a vegan diet in hopes of lowering my blood pressure. Studies show that a plant-based diet can reverse diabetes and heart disease. I really believed in a plant-based diet for my own survival. Many people thought that I was doing it for ethical or moral reasons. Well, I do believe that I have a moral obligation to keep myself well for my family and so that society doesn't have to pay for my high medical bills. Also I'm sure I'm on this earth for a reason. I believe my mission is to tell others stories in order to make the world a brighter place. Right now it's bringing you local news in the form of the Budgeteer.

But my blood pressure didn't really go down until I started swimming.

I started swimming again two years ago. I'm not very fast and wouldn't win any races. I hate most other exercising. My husband likes to tease me about the time I shouted, "I hate the treadmill!" at a Weight Watchers meeting. But swimming is something I honestly enjoy. I love the sensation of gliding through the water and the buoyancy. I feel like I'm a kid. I also think that the rhythmic breathing while swimming laps forces me to breath in a more relaxed manner.

So while some bemoan their birthdays, I have worked hard these past few years to be able to enjoy mine. Now my daughter is 26 and I am 54 — milestone ages for me. Dad never met my child, but I intend to be around for her and any family that might come along later.

Yaeger is the editor of the Duluth Budgeteer News.

Naomi Yaeger

Naomi Yaeger is a freelance writer and the former editor of the Budgeteer. See her blog at