Heart disease remains the leading cause of death among men and women in the United States but there is not the same awareness raised. Cardiovascular disease—which manifests as high blood pressure (hypertension), atherosclerosis (“hardening of the arteries”), heart attack, and stroke—may still be our number one killer, but things could be worse. People are living much longer now than they did in the mid-20th century, for example, thanks in large part to a better understanding of the factors that contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease.
In most instances, it all begins with a process called endothelial dysfunction. The endothelium is a delicate layer of specialized cells that lines the interior of blood vessels. When this tissue is healthy, vessels are able to relax and contract as needed, and blood flows freely and smoothly. But over time, under certain conditions, this tissue can experience damage and become dysfunctional. In an effort to repair some of this damage, plaques may develop.
Eventually, these plaques grow large enough to create blockages, which can prevent blood flow. When this occurs in blood vessels supplying oxygen and nutrients to the heart muscle itself, a heart attack occurs. Alternatively, a piece of clot may break free from such a plaque, travel to the brain, and cause a sudden blockage there. The result is a stroke.
This process may begin surprisingly early in life, and take decades to develop to the point of crisis. Clearly, nipping endothelial dysfunction in the bud is the best strategy to prevent the development of potentially deadly cardiovascular disease. The good news is that even among older people, with signs of advanced endothelial dysfunction, it’s possible to halt, or even reverse, this dangerous process and reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke.
You Can Fight Back
It’s all about lifestyle: Diet, exercise, and stress management. The link between adequate daily exercise—or really, just movement—and heart health is well documented. The benefits of everything from social networks, and support systems, to attitude and laughter, are also fairly well known. Let us focus on another factor that is well within the capability of most people to control: Diet.
What they didn’t know in the mid-20th century, when people were dropping dead of heart attacks at relatively young ages with shocking regularity, is that diet has a crucial impact on cardiovascular health. Numerous factors had conspired to promote a diet that was dangerously unhealthy. There was an emphasis on red meat, and synthetic trans-fatty acids. The latter were artificially created compounds present in everything from shelf-stable lard, to table-top margarine. We now know that these lab-created fats are essentially toxic. They should be avoided at all costs. Sadly, they still appear in some packaged baked goods and other foods.
Little emphasis was placed on vegetables and fruits. They tended to come in cans and featured added sugars or excess salt. Fortunately, we now know that diets rich in fresh vegetables, fruits, grains, and other plant foods are far better for heart health. Among other reasons, such a vegetarian approach to nutrition provides lots of beneficial fiber, and plenty of antioxidants and naturally anti-inflammatory compounds. The latter probably plays an outsize role in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Endothelial dysfunction (the root cause of cardiovascular disease) is essentially an inflammatory process. Accordingly, reducing inflammation in the body is highly beneficial.
Here are some specific foods that are considered especially healthful for the prevention of cardiovascular disease:
Fresh beets are a rich source of natural nitrates. Not to be confused with nitrites, which are decidedly not healthful and are added to some deli meats to preserve freshness, dietary nitrates are important compounds the body uses to generate nitric oxide (NO). While it may not sound beneficial, NO is actually a key molecule that signals blood vessels to relax. Relaxed blood vessels yield lower blood pressure, and help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. NO also reduce the stickiness of platelets, which means they’re less likely to form potentially dangerous clots.
Virtually all tree nuts possess remarkably beneficial properties. In addition to heart healthy fats, nuts are generally good sources of trace elements and minerals, and provide fiber. Research indicates that snacking on nuts is linked to reduced appetite, and may help with weight loss. Maintaining an ideal weight is a key heart-health goal.
Oats and Other Whole Grains
Whole grains, such as oats, provide fiber and other nutrients that are linked to lower blood lipids and a lower risk of heart disease
Vibrantly-hued fruits, such as berries, contain potent antioxidant pigment compounds. These natural compounds combat inflammation and a damaging process called oxidative stress, helping to reduce the incidence of any number of diseases, including cardiovascular disease.
Garlic contains unique compounds called allicins. These chemicals, which are only released when garlic is crushed or chopped, provide several significant benefits that may directly affect the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Dark Green Leafy Vegetables
Vegetables such as kale, spinach, arugula, etc., are rich in nutrients that have been linked to heart health. Like beets, spinach is a rich source of beneficial nitrates, for example.