Kiss Heart Disease (and other chronic illnesses) Goodbye

The Problem: Heart Disease is the Number One Killer

Heart disease is the single most important cause of death in adults in the United States.  In fact, every 33 seconds, someone in our country dies of cardiovascular disease! The problem is so huge that more people die of heart disease than of all forms of cancer and AIDS combined.  8 million people alive today in the US have had a heart attack and the cost of heart disease comes in at a staggering $500 billion per year.  Women are not exempt from the ravages of heart attack and stroke—42% of females who have had a heart attack die within a year (compared to only 24% of men).  Six times the number of women die from a heart attack then from breast cancer. What’s also frightening is that under the age of 50, women are twice as likely to die from their first heart attack.

The Solution: You!

What’s crazy is that cardiovascular disease is completely preventable, not inevitable!  In the New England Journal of Medicine report from the Nurses Health Study, over 84,000 women without heart problems at baseline were followed for 20 years.  This landmark study found that there was an extremely low incidence of heart disease in those women who adhered to a lifestyle marked by consistent exercise, a diet rich in fiber, omega fatty acids, fruits and vegetables, and those that abstained from using tobacco.  Other researchers have found that almost all chronic conditions, such as Type II diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease and obesity are directly tied to lifestyle choices.  What choice are you making today?

Inflammation: The Smoking Gun

During my cardiology training at Texas Heart Institute, research was being done that looked at the actual temperature of the cholesterol and fat laden plaque in coronary arteries.  The more inflammatory cells, the hotter the plaque and the more likely it was to rupture and cause a sudden heart attack.  Over the last several years, inflammation, measured by simple lab tests, has been found to be predictive of future heart attack and death from cardiovascular disease.  Conversely, the absence of these inflammatory markers is directly associated with a much lower risk to develop atherosclerosis and other chronic illnesses such as diabetes.

Reducing Inflammation: Exercise, Eat, Sleep, Repeat

Many things that we do for ourselves and to ourselves are either pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory.  Lack of exercise and sitting for prolonged periods actually leads to high CRP levels—a strong, highly researched marker of inflammation.   On the other hand, studies have shown that people who exercise at a moderate to high intensity have a 47% likelihood to have a lower CRP level then those that are sedentary.  Getting too little sleep also leads to high levels of inflammation.  Researchers have found that getting less then 7 hours of high quality sleep leads to much higher CRP levels and other inflammatory markers.  As you might guess, food that we eat also plays a major role in inflammation.  In fact, saturated fats and trans fats have been shown to significantly increase inflammatory markers and subsequently lead to higher rates of heart attack and stroke.  Foods that reduce inflammation include a diet that is rich in alpha-linoleic acids and omega fatty acids from flax and hemp seeds, berries (especially blueberries and blackberries), and leafy green vegetables.

The typical Western diet is the epitome of a pro-inflammatory perfect storm with highly refined and processed foods, lots of red meat, processed grains, added sugar and fat and shockingly small amounts of fruits and vegetables.  But instead of focusing on what is “bad” for us, dietitians are promoting a “pattern” of healthful eating that is shared among the societies around the world that have the lowest rates of heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes.  These patterns always have higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.  I try to impress upon my patients to not get so caught up in the details, that they lose sight of the big picture.  By keeping this basic pattern of healthful living in mind, we can make great strides to derail the seemingly inevitable, but preventable specter of illness in our life.