Cancer tends to strike fear in the hearts of men and women. It gets the lion’s share of headlines, and receives impressive funding that’s used to combat it on any number of fronts. But heart disease is actually the number one killer of men and women in America—and throughout most of the world. Obviously, cancer remains a dreaded threat, for good reason. But we would all do well to pay more attention to cardiovascular disease.
It’s not just that, statistically speaking, heart disease is the single greatest threat to a given person’s health; it’s also that heart disease is largely preventable. Unlike cancer, we know many of the risk factors that can put a person at increased risk for developing dangerous heart disease. And we know how to modify those risks. In short: There are several relatively simple steps you can take—today, and every day—that can significantly reduce your risk of succumbing to cardiovascular disease.
What is Heart Disease?
Here’s a quick refresher. Heart disease takes many forms. Without getting too technical, suffice to say that when we say heart disease, we’re usually talking about preventable cardiovascular disease. It begins in the linings of the blood vessels—often decades before any noticeable signs arise. Indeed, evidence suggests that heart disease may actually begin in childhood. The delicate, specialized tissue lining blood vessels, called the endothelium, becomes inflamed and dysfunctional. Eventually, atherosclerosis (sometimes called “hardening of the arteries”) develops.
Plaques may form in places where damage has occurred, and these plaques may eventually form clots. When these clots break free, they can travel to the heart—where they may block blood flow to the heart muscle itself—depriving the muscle of oxygen and nutrients, causing a heart attack. If clots travel to the brain, they may cause a stroke.
Other forms of heart disease, including atrial fibrillation, and heart valve disorders, are becoming increasingly common. Most of these manifestations of heart disease are believe to reflect various risk factors.
To be clear, a few known risk factors are out of your control. They include:
• Gender (Sorry, men, you’re at increased risk from the start)
• Advanced age (there’s no cure yet for growing older)
• A family history of early heart disease (there’s no escaping genetics)
• A history of preeclampsia (this dangerously high blood pressure condition during pregnancy affects about 3.4% of American women)
But there are also at least five major risk factors that are within your control:
• Body weight (being overweight or obese increases risk)
• Diet (an unhealthy diet boosts risk; a healthful, plant-based diet slashes risk)
• Activity level (being sedentary boosts risk; conversely, getting adequate exercise dramatically cuts risk)
• Smoking (tobacco smoking dramatically increases your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, among other illnesses)
• High blood pressure
• High cholesterol levels
Still other factors are believed to contribute to your risk:
• Excess alcohol intake (however, alcohol in moderation may actually lower risk somewhat; for men this translates to 2 “units” of alcohol per day; for women, just 1 “unit” per day. A “unit” is defined as a shot of 80-proof liquor, 5 fl oz of wine, or 12 oz beer. Obviously, anyone with a history of alcoholism should avoid all alcohol.)
• Stress (again, exercise can help; it relieves stress and lowers levels of the “stress hormone,” cortisol. Other options include yoga, mindfulness, meditation, etc.)
Most of these modifiable risk factors are interrelated. Eating a plant-based diet, for example, and getting plenty of exercise, invariably yields weight loss, or healthy weight control, while also lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Obviously, if your doctor prescribes medications to control your blood pressure and/or high cholesterol levels, you should follow his or her advice.
But you can take other steps on your own. Adding more beets to your diet, for example, may help control blood pressure naturally. The same is true of dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach or kale.
And fitting in just 30 minutes of moderately vigorous exercise daily is also linked to a reduced risk of heart disease. The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to schedule time in the gym. Just about any type of activity that gets you moving can help. And it needn’t be done all at once. Five minutes of vacuuming, two minutes of dusting, three minutes of climbing the stairs instead of taking the elevator, walking to the mailbox…it all counts.
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