A quick overview of what we’ll cover in this post:
- An overview of heart disease
- The importance of prevention
- Ways to monitor and reduce the risk of heart disease
An estimated 30 million Americans have heart disease, and it is the leading cause of death in the U.S. Even more worrisome, people as young as 15 years old can show signs of conditions like atherosclerosis, a cause of heart disease.
That sounds scary, but there is hope! Doctors and researchers have learned a lot about heart disease in recent years, including effective ways to reduce the risk of developing it.
So, whether you’re currently at high risk of developing heart disease or just want to find ways to keep your risk low, we’ve got you covered. We’ll break down what heart disease is and preventative steps you can take.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease is a general term that refers to several conditions that affect the heart and blood flow. Coronary artery disease (CAD), the most common form of heart disease, causes inflammation in major blood vessels and can lead to heart attacks.
The most common cause of CAD? LDL cholesterol.
You might have heard LDL cholesterol referred to as “bad” cholesterol before, though LDL itself isn’t inherently “bad.” In fact, our livers make LDL cholesterol to help maintain healthy cell function. Too much LDL cholesterol, however, can build up in our arteries. That’s why doctors viewed heart disease in terms of just clogged arteries and, to this day, use procedures like angioplasty (which smash built up cholesterol against the blood vessel wall) to “unclog” arteries and restore blood flow.
However, research has suggested that removing these blockages using angioplasty does little to reduce the risk of heart attack. So, what gives?
It turns out, inflammation, a normal immune system response, also plays a big role in heart disease, rather than simply clogged arteries. Too much inflammation can cause the body to attack cholesterol deposits in arteries, causing them to rupture, travel to narrower parts of blood vessels, and cut off circulation (ultimately leading to heart attacks). That’s why smashing cholesterol against a blood vessel wall doesn’t remove the risk, because the cholesterol is still there.
Our modern lifestyles (including what we eat and how much stress we experience) can increase the presence of LDL cholesterol and how strongly our immune system reacts, making inflammation and heart disease worse.
Who is most at risk?
Having high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking are key factors that put people at greater risk of heart disease. People with a history of heart disease in their family may also be more at risk. Age factors in, too: new cases of heart disease tend to rise sharply with age. That’s because we are more prone to inflammation the older we get.
Why is prevention important?
Preventing heart disease before it gets bad is key. It’s estimated that a third of men and half of women die within 5 years after a heart attack, so doing everything you can to prevent that from happening is crucial.
However, heart disease doesn’t often cause symptoms, so it’s not always easy to spot. Some may experience angina (or severe chest pain). For others, though, a heart attack may be the first sign of heart disease. In fact, some estimates show that almost half of people who die of heart attacks had no previous signs, history, or symptoms of heart disease.
What can you do to prevent or reduce your risk of heart disease?
Fortunately, heart disease is completely preventable, meaning there’s a lot you can do to manage your risk! Here are three key things you can do every day:
- Eat more polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are often referred to as the “healthy” fats, and have been shown to help with cholesterol levels in the blood. Research has shown that following the Mediterranean diet, for example, can improve cardiovascular and heart health.
- Reduce stress. Reducing stress can help tone down our immune systems and help manage inflammation.
- Increase physical activity. Exercise can help with many of the risk factors for heart disease, including reducing stress and inflammation. Aim for about 150 minutes of activity a week, when possible.
You may also consider supplements and medications shown to reduce cholesterol levels and inflammation (such as Metformin, red yeast rice, garlic, and more). Your doctor may even recommend statins, a common cholesterol medication, if your LDL cholesterol levels are currently too high.
How can you monitor your risk?
Consider getting regular blood tests and talking with your doctor to check the following:
- Lipid panels. These measure LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol (the good kind), and triglycerides (fats in the blood).
- High-sensitivity C-reactive protein (CRP). This helps gauge the severity of inflammation in your body.
- Homocysteine. Some research has shown that certain levels of stress can increase levels of homocysteine, so this can help you keep track of stress.
Ready to tackle heart disease? Begin with a free online assessment to understand your risk of heart disease and receive doctor-recommended prescriptions and supplements to help prioritize your preventative care.
 Kurzweil, R., & Grossman, T. (2009). Transcend: Nine steps to living well forever. Rodale, Inc. New York, NY.