The number one killer of mankind is heart attack and stroke, not cancer, not viruses. The clogging of plaque in our arteries leading to heart attacks is the most common form of heart disease. Unfortunately, this number one killer of humanity is largely a choice – a man-made disease – driven by our behavior and lifestyle. In the words of our esteemed colleague, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, plaque buildup in the arteries is a “toothless paper tiger that need not exist”.
February is heart month, and with the words on this page, I’m going to give you a brief introduction to heart disease. You’ll understand the best way to take care of your heart, prevent the most common form of heart disease, and learn when to seek help from one of the many wonderful providers in our Fauquier County community.
The different forms of heart disease fall into one of three main categories:
- Abnormalities that you were born with, or what we call a congenital condition.
- Age-related degenerative conditions that occur over time, radiation, and gravity chip away at our tissues, affecting the roots of our DNA called telomeres.
- Human-induced heart disease, the most common form, which includes heart attacks and coronary heart disease.
Each of the above categories of heart disease can impact the functioning of the heart muscle, electrical system, and valves. These impacts can lead to a range of symptoms, and if you have any, please report them to your primary care provider without delay. Symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath on exertion
- Chest discomfort (particularly with physical activity, relieved rapidly at rest)
- Unusual fatigue with activity
- Dizziness or fainting
People will often have one or more of these symptoms for a while and simply attribute them to being “out of shape” or “just plain old age.” Of course, a symptom, such as shortness of breath, can be caused by excess body fat and muscle deconditioning. Either way, it’s important to see your provider. Your primary care provider will do an assessment and decide if you would benefit from a referral to a cardiologist (heart specialist) and/or a respirologist (lung specialist).
So how do we best take care of our hearts? Keep these key points in mind:
- We can’t do anything to prevent the abnormalities we were born with (ie congenital heart disease) and we can’t do much to prevent age-related degenerative conditions. However, if we recognize the symptoms of these conditions, as noted above, we can often begin to treat them with medication and/or surgery.
- The most common form of heart disease, plaque blockage in the arteries, can also be treated with medication and/or surgery. However, we don’t usually learn that a person has heart disease until they have had their first heart attack.
Heart attack/coronary disease is due to the unholy tango of cholesterol and the inflammation of our blood vessels which damages the walls of these blood vessels during our lifetime.
Where does excess cholesterol come from and the main source of inflammation in our blood vessels?
- The foods we eat (food of animal origin, processed foods).
- The lifestyle we lead (tobacco smoke, pollution, mental stress, physical inactivity, etc.).
When we look around the planet, we see large populations where individuals do not develop heart disease and other associated chronic diseases (diabetes, hypertension, some common cancers) at rates close to that of most Americans and other Western-style populations.
The bond that unites these populations (i.e. the original inhabitants of Okinawa, many Mediterranean islanders, several rural communities in East Africa and nearly a third of Seventh-day Adventists here even in the United States) are these key habits:
- Eating a largely complete, plant-based diet (with the elimination of most animal protein, including chicken, turkey, beef, pork, eggs, dairy):
- Understand that animal foods bring cholesterol and inflammation into your body through various biochemical mechanisms. When it comes to your heart health, lean or white meat isn’t really considered heart-healthy.
- For those who think moderation is key, I have some tips for you. When something is not considered healthy or is considered potentially harmful, we should do our best not to “use” it at all. The World Health Organization (WHO) has previously declared that processed meat (i.e. ham, sausage and pepperoni) is a group 1 carcinogen, i.e. carcinogen, as well as asbestos, plutonium and combustible tobacco. Consider that the next time you crave that slice of pepperoni pizza or order pizza for dinner, it’s an easier meal option.
- Enjoy a lifestyle free of tobacco, drugs and toxins.
- Insert lots of movement into your daily routine – like yoga/meditation – and a rich culture of love and connectedness in the community.
There is plenty of data from randomized, controlled scientific trials that backs up the reality that changing your diet to a plant-based diet and leading a healthy lifestyle can prevent, stop, and reverse the plaque buildup that occurs. already inside your arteries. The most striking of these studies was presented by Dr. Dean Ornish’s famous Lifestyle Heart Trial, published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet.
Based in part on this work, Dr. Ornish gained approval from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) for his “Ornish Reversal Program,” an intensive cardiac rehabilitation program that helps individuals target these key factors. reversible risk of chronic disease.
That’s why we say with confidence that humanity’s number one killer – a heart attack – is largely preventable. It can be prevented by the choices you make and if it is already present it can be stopped and reversed.
If you have concerning symptoms, as discussed in the article, or just want to learn more about how best to take care of your body’s motor, please start the conversation with your primary care provider or a cardiologist.
Neel K. Shah, MD, FACC, RPVI