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September 19, 2023

Preventing Heart Disease: Lifestyle Changes, Risk Factors & Early Detection

Preventing Heart Disease: Lifestyle Changes, Risk Factors & Early Detection

Every 33 seconds, someone dies of cardiovascular disease in the United States. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in this country, but it’s also preventable.

“Unfortunately, heart disease is incredibly common. Nearly every human being will have some heart condition in their life, whether it’s a benign murmur or something more serious,” said Dr. Brendan Cavanaugh, a cardiologist at IU Health Arnett Hospital. “Fortunately, most of the conditions that affect the heart are treatable or modifiable, which is a big reason why I went into cardiology—to help people with this preventable disease.”

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is any condition that affects the heart—its valves, chambers and electrical system—or the blood vessels and arteries supporting it. Adults with diabetes are twice as likely to have heart disease, since high blood glucose can damage blood vessels and nerves controlling the heart. Sometimes heart disease is “silent” (a common diabetic heart attack symptom) and goes undiagnosed until a symptom appears, which may show up as a heart arrhythmia (fluttering), high blood pressure, heart attack or heart failure.

“By far the most common symptoms I see are chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, heart palpitations and a feeling like you’ll pass out or actually passing out,” Dr. Cavanaugh said. “The latest statistic is that 20% of all emergency department visits are for chest discomfort of some kind. It’s very common.”

Heart disease is a growing problem as people eat more processed foods and live increasingly sedentary lives. Refined sugar, trans fats and preservatives cause inflammation in the body and clog the arteries leading to the heart, resulting in increased rates of heart disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, anxiety and depression. When you eat a lot of carbohydrates, the body thinks it’s starving and begins storing food for later, whereas a high-fat, high-protein diet encourages slower processing and leads to less fat storage in the belly and hips.

“Refined sugar, diabetes and obesity are the reasons we’re seeing so much heart disease now. When I talk about addiction, the substance we most often become addicted to is not cigarettes or alcohol—it’s sugar,” Dr. Cavanaugh said. “In the 1980s, high-fat diets were more common, and people prepared more of their own food. However, guidelines 30 years ago discouraged high-fat foods, and people moved toward a very different diet high in carbs and refined sugar, which causes obesity.”

Prevention and control of cardiovascular disease 

While genetics play a role in your likelihood for developing heart disease (“Heart disease is 50% genetics and 50% your lifestyle,” Dr. Cavanagh said), there’s plenty you can do to keep your heart healthy. Dr. Cavanaugh says it’s about focusing on what you can control. He suggests three steps to prevent cardiovascular disease:

  1. Moderate exercise

While there are countless articles about how to prevent coronary artery disease through exercise, Dr. Cavanaugh says the goal is simply to get moving. Incorporating any additional movement into your day is beneficial.

“You don’t have to have a regimented aerobic exercise program. Most people who live to 100 years old do a moderate amount of exercise, like walking to the grocery store or a friend’s house or riding a bike,” Dr. Cavanaugh said.

  1. Whole diet

First, stay away from foods that will inflame your body, like fast or fried food, processed food, soft drinks and refined sugar. Instead, pick options like Mediterranean foods that are geared toward lean proteins like chicken and fish, fruits and vegetables, and good oils like olive oil. This is how the Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of very complex diet books out there, and it can create analysis paralysis with too many options,” Dr. Cavanaugh said. “If you can make small changes, like cutting cigarettes, soft drinks and fast food, you’re taking a good step toward cardiovascular health.”

  1. Good mental health and social connections

Studies show that over time, depression, anxiety and stress can cause elevated heart rate and blood pressure and heart disease. Loneliness and isolation can also contribute to the challenges of navigating life’s difficulties, especially among men. Dr. Cavanaugh says creating and nurturing connections with friends and family while practicing mindfulness in meditation or yoga can help support cardiovascular health.

“I’m a big believer—as are many—that the heart and mind are directly linked. I call the heart an ‘innocent bystander’ because it’s affected by what our mind is telling us,” Dr. Cavanaugh said. “Other than exercise and medications, meditation is another method to help reduce blood pressure. Things like yoga, mindfulness and breathing exercises can really help reduce anxiety and depression.”

If you’re eating a good diet, exercising, practicing mindfulness and still experiencing daily anxiety and depression, Dr. Cavanaugh says it may be time to schedule a visit with a mental health professional to discuss further treatments.

To ensure you do not have silent heart disease, Dr. Cavanaugh recommends people aged 50 and above get a heart scan. This computed tomography (CT) scan of the heart essentially takes an x-ray of the organ and its arteries to look for plaque deposits. Based on the findings, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, anti-inflammatory or cholesterol medications and follow up.

“Several studies have shown that if people actually see the plaque in their heart or arteries, they tend to be more compliant to lifestyle changes or taking medications,” Dr. Cavanaugh said. “A heart scan is not for people who don’t feel well. It’s a screening tool to help us understand how aggressive we need to be.”

People who are overweight, smoke tobacco and have high blood pressure may be a candidate to request a heart scan. Ask your doctor about your risks for heart disease and what you can do to prevent it.



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