Sandra Goldsmith, 74, a member of the congregation at South Los Angeles' Holman Unified Methodist Church, clips a glasses-like device onto a smartphone and peers in. Instantly she sees herself standing in the middle of a kitchen. On the counter before her sits a range of food products — from black beans to salmon to gumbo to lasagna to fruit smoothies. As she focuses in on each item, a header containing the sodium content of the item pops up above it. When she looks down, she is transported to a 3-D rendering of the inside of a human body — her virtual body — and a time-lapse representation of a pumping heart as it deteriorates from the effects of years of high blood pressure.
Welcome to the world of virtual reality devices as applied to pre-emptive healthcare.
In the past decade, doctors across the country have used virtual reality in a number of innovative ways; from practicing surgeries, to teaching families about complicated medical treatments, to treat stress, and, most recently, to treat pain. According to the Los Angeles Times, the test project underway with Goldsmith and other congregation members of Holman Unified Methodist Church represents a new evolution to explore how virtual reality might work as a form of healthcare intervention outside a hospital or a doctor's office.
"You're sitting there, all of a sudden in your own chest, watching your heart beat," Dr. Brennan Spiegel of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center tells public health and health policy reporter Soumya Karlamangla. "The whole idea is to just hijack the brain into rethinking the role of food, and in this case salt and health, and we're testing this now to see how people experience it and if it's helpful to them," he adds.
This collaboration between Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Holman Unified Methodist Church to reduce high blood pressure in the community has been underway for approximately two years now. Virtual reality is just one tool in the tool kit to combat the problem. The program also includes weekly healthy dinners and recipe sharing, educational classes, and the wearing and monitoring of fitness trackers, as well as nurse check-ins.
The congregation of Holman Church is predominantly African-American. African-Americans tend to develop high blood pressure more often and at a younger age than other groups. One out of three African Americans in L.A. County said they'd been diagnosed with high blood pressure.
"Everyone's been on a diet," Dr. Bernice Coleman, a nurse scientist who heads the project for Cedars-Sinai tells Karlamangla. "The thing in the middle that nobody understands is salt."
According to a Harvard University report, experts estimate that we could save 280,000 lives in the United States if, for example, for the next 10 years we lowered the average daily sodium intake by 40 percent. The operative word here is "lower." Sodium is an essential part of our diet. It helps nerves and muscles function as well as hold onto water, but too much sodium means your body could retain too much liquid and that spells trouble. And that trouble is compounded by a Western diet saturated in salty food.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend the sodium intake of anyone over the age of 14 years be less than 2,300 milligrams per day. The average American consumes 3,409 milligrams of sodium each day, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many Americans routinely exceed this amount. Roughly 75 percent of sodium comes from prepared and processed foods. At the same time, the restaurant industry remains at the top of the list for sodium-dense meals.
According to the Mayo Clinic, high blood pressure — and the condition known as hypertension — can quietly damage your body for years before symptoms develop. It's why it's often called the "silent killer." Left uncontrolled, a person could wind up with a disability, poor quality of life or even a fatal heart attack. Roughly half the people with untreated hypertension die of heart disease, while another third die of stroke.
Meanwhile, like explorers in a new frontier, each week members of the Holman Church congregation gather for dinner, followed by a class. They've learned all about recommended salt intake. They've taken cooking and Tai Chi classes.
The church's spiritual leader, Reverend Kelvin Sauls, tells the Los Angeles Times that he has come to see health and faith as two sides of the same coin. It is why he brings yoga and Zumba classes to his church. He is well aware that African Americans, in addition to hypertension, are particularly vulnerable to diabetes and heart disease. According to the American Diabetes Association, more than 13 percent of all African Americans aged 20 years or older have diagnosed diabetes. Nearly 95 percent of the diabetes cases in the United States are Type 2, which many health care professionals see as a reversible disease.
"We can't save people's souls in the sanctuary and kill their bodies in the fellowship hall," Rev. Sauls will say.
It seems a sentiment with which health care systems, looking desperately for more efficient ways to treat patients, could readily agree.
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