By Steven Hutchings
One in three of us is a walking time bomb. When the ticking stops, your life might go with it. But as the leading cause of death in the United States – indeed, the most common reason people die anywhere on the planet – it’s far more deadly than any explosive.
Heart disease is a collection of diseases and conditions that affect the heart or blood vessels. Also called cardiovascular disease, it kills roughly 7.25 million people each year and accounts for almost 13% of all deaths according to the World Health Organization.
This doesn’t mean you have to go down that road. Many of the risk factors for heart disease are within your control. The advice you’ve heard for much of your life goes a long way here. Don’t smoke, exercise often, eat your fruits and take the skin off chicken.
Yet curiously, there’s one corner of the globe where folks rarely get heart disease. And the secret behind this low incidence may also reduce stress, bring you closer to your love ones and make life a heckuva lot more enjoyable.
Heart disease is a series of potentially life-threatening conditions. Combined, they’re one of the leading health concerns facing our population. They include:
Coronary heart disease – Also called atherosclerosis, this refers to hardening of the blood vessels that provide nutrients and oxygen to the heart.
Abnormal heart rhythm – Your heart beats in a steady, even rhythm, about sixty to a hundred times each minute (which works out to roughly 100,000 time a day). Sometimes, however, it beats out of rhythm, with an uneven heartbeat, or it beats faster or slower than normal. You can also call this an arrhythmia.
Heart failure – Not a failure of the heart, as the name implies, heart failure means your heart doesn’t pump as effectively as it should. This leads to salt and water retention, which can cause swelling and shortness of breath. Heart failure affects roughly five million Americans and is the leading cause of hospital visits in people over 65.
Heart valve disease – These are problems related to the valves at each exit to the four chambers of your heart. Such heart valve problems include mitral valve prolapse, aortic stenosis and mitral valve insufficiency.
Congenital heart disease – A birth defect to at least one structure of the heart or blood vessels. This occurs before birth and affects roughly eight out of every thousand children. You might not see any symptoms of congenital heart disease until adulthood.
Research continues into congenital heart disease. In most cases, we can’t explain why it happens, though some researchers speculate that genes, fetal exposure to drugs, alcohol and some viral infections may play a role.
Cardiomyopathies – Disease of the heart muscle. Also called ‘enlarged heart’, this means the heart is abnormally large, thickened or stiff. As a result, it has less ability to pump blood, and without treatment, can lead to heart failure and abnormal heart rhythms.
Aorta disease – This is a group of diseases that affect the aorta – the artery that distributes oxygen-rich blood from your heart throughout your body. These diseases can dilate or tear the aorta, which increases the likelihood of further, potentially fatal events, like atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, genetic conditions like Marfan syndrome, vascular disease and more.
People with aorta disease should be treated by an experienced cardiovascular surgeon.
There are risk factors for heart disease within your control and some that are not. The latter category includes:
Being male – According to the Mayo Clinic, men are at higher risk of heart attack than younger women, although that risk increases for women after menopause. By the way, guys, don’t ignore erectile dysfunction, because ED is often a sign of impending heart problems.
Advancing age – You’re more likely to experience damaged or weakened arteries with age, and/or cardiomyopathies that reduce the heart’s ability to properly function.
Family history of heart disease – Did a family member have heart disease? That’s not so good, especially if it was your father or brother before 55, or mother or sister ten years later.
Race – Studies show that African Americans, American Indians and Mexican Americans are more likely to develop heart disease than caucasians.
First, a disclaimer. I’m not a doctor and this site isn’t meant to diagnose or treat any condition or disease, not the least of which being the leading cause of death on the planet. Nothing beats the advice of a physician who knows your medical history. That’s why you should speak with your doctor regarding any specific concerns about heart disease.
With this being said, the folks here at Natural Health Source believe you can engage in habits that help or harm. It’s the folks who pursue healthy habits that help your body adapt to the challenges of life – heart disease among them. These healthy habits include:
Stop smoking – Among the many negative health effects of smoking, smokers are twice as likely to have a heart attack as people who don’t puff. Second-hand smoke is just as bad (and survey results this week reveal that smoking decreases your home’s value by almost 30%!
Improve your cholesterol levels – High cholesterol raises your risk of heart disease. Generally speaking, you should aim for total cholesterol less than 200 mg/dl, with 40 mg/dl for men and 50 mg/dl for women of HDL, aka the ‘good’ cholesterol. A higher number for this figure is ideal. LDL (the ‘bad’ cholesterol) in healthy adults should be less than 130.
You can lower cholesterol – and your risk of heart disease – with a diet low in cholesterol, saturated and trans fats. Exercise can lower LDL and raise HDL too. Speak with your doctor for more information, especially if other factors, like diabetes, come into play.
Lower your blood pressure – What do 60 million adults in the United States have in common? They all have high blood pressure, defined as systolic blood pressure (the upper number) above 140 and diastolic blood pressure (the lower number) above 90. Blood pressure’s an individual assessment for your doctor to make, weighing in factors including diet, BMI, medications and exercise.
Manage diabetes – A potential health catastrophe, diabetes rivals obesity and heart disease as one of the most urgent issues facing an ageing population. Diabetes can contribute to heart damage, leading to heart attack and death. Tools in your arsenal? Exercise, healthy diet, a BMI between 20 and 24 and taking medications as required.
Be active – A recurring theme in heart disease and diabetes, and ideally how to prevent them both, regular exercise. Aim for at least 30 minutes a day, whether that’s walking, cycling, yoga or something more strenuous. Just do it often, and preferably with others for added motivation.
Watch your plate – Much has been said about trans fats, salt, saturated fats and foods high in sugar. On the healthy list: foods high in nutrients and antioxidants. Load up on fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains. And don’t forget salmon.
Aim for Body Mass Index between 20-24 – Obesity increases risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglycerides. Eat right and exercise. There are no short cuts with this one.
Manage your stress – Aspiring hulks take note. You’re not going to turn into a 9 foot raging green monster by bottling up all that frustration and anger. Manage stress with anger management and relaxation techniques, massage, Tai Chi or yoga. Heck, build a garden. Do something constructive to put your mind at ease.
Life’s not always beer and skittles. As proof, meat lovers like myself (I’m addicted to the TLC’s BBQ Pitmasters) look no further than a new study that found a link between a compound, carnitine, in red meat and energy drinks with increased risk of atherosclerosis.
The study also found that heavy red meat consumption increased the bacteria that metabolize the compound. The more study participants ate red meat, the higher their levels of carnitine and the bacteria, called trimethylamine-N-oxide, or TMAO.
In short, the bacteria in our digestive tract are dictated by the foods we consume.
In the study, study lead Dr. Stanley Hazen and his team at Cleveland Clinic’s Heart and Vascular Institute built on earlier research they’d done linking TMAO to atherosclerosis. They analyzed roughly 2,600 patients undergoing heart evaluations, and found that high levels of carnitine correlated with increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke and heart-related death.
Conversely, the team found that TMAO levels were much lower in vegans and vegetarians. The latter abstain from meat while vegans eat no animal products, including meat, eggs and dairy.
Although the study, which is published in the journal Nature Medicine, does not prove a cause and effect link between red meat and heart disease, it adds to long held speculation between the two, says the team. They also claim it adds further weight to the benefits of a vegan and vegetarian diet, who not only had lower levels of TMAO, but had less ability to synthesize the harmful compound as well.
One expert, Dr. Tara Narula of the Cardiac Care Unit at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, is more assertive with the findings and told WebMD the study “brings awareness that many supplements like energy drinks can have the same vessel-damaging compounds as red meat”. And concerning the latter, that a heart-healthy diet should have little to none of it.
Now that we’ve taken some of the joy out of your day with a rant against red meat, let’s put a little passion back in your life with a single thought: Europe.
We can learn much from Europeans, as fans of Rick Steves will tell you. Perhaps you’ve heard of the French Paradox. That’s a description of the curious phenomena that the people of France have a relatively low rate of coronary heart disease, despite a diet rich in fatty foods. And despite numerous studies, and researchers intent on proving the paradox an illusion, the pattern continues.
The key to much of the French Paradox may lie in the Mediterranean diet. That’s another buzzword you may have heard in recent years describing the cuisines of the nations on that body of water.
Consider the Mediterannean diet is:
based on fresh whole foods that are high in antioxidants
high in heart-healthy omega-3 rich foods, like fish
high in monounsaturated fats that raise HDL (good) cholesterol
low in sugar, sodium, trans fats and red meat
The mediterranean diet is a combination of food choice and lifestyle, of nutritious food and a slower pace. You may not be able to take the stress out of life but you can certainly manage it well, with little to no meat, delicious fruits and vegetables, whole wheats, fish and a glass of wine to cap off your day.
The mediterranean diet is a healthy lifestyle. And there’s proof to back it: a March 2011 analysis of 50 studies reveals the Mediterranean diet offers the full treatment of heart protective benefits, with lower risk of metabolic syndrome – a collection of risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, unhealthy cholesterol levels and abdominal fat.
There’s a weight advantage too. The mediterranean diet, and the lifestyle to which it belongs, incorporates active living, whether that’s dancing, a game of soccer, or an evening walk to end your day. Peruse this diagram of the mediterranean diet pyramid, of which lifestyle compliments a heart-friendly diet.
Want to learn more about the mediterranean diet? Work the perimeters of your local supermarket. That’s where you’ll find the fruits and vegetables, the poultry, fish and cheeses. Visit oldways.com for more information and some recipes to try. You can put a little piece of Europe on your table each night, and might even ward off our friend heart disease while you do it.