Cardiovascular disease is pervasive but preventable
By David Dunaief, M.D.
Heart disease is so pervasive that men who are 40 years old have a lifetime risk of 49 percent. In other words, about half of men will be affected by heart disease. The statistics are better for women, but they still have a staggering 32 percent lifetime risk at age 40 (1).
The good news is that heart disease is on the decline due to a number of factors, including better awareness in lay and medical communities, improved medicines, earlier treatment of risk factors and lifestyle modifications. We are headed in the right direction, but we can do better. Heart disease is something that is eminently preventable.
Heart disease risk factors
Risk factors include obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking and diabetes. Unfortunately, both obesity and diabetes are on the rise. For patients with type 2 diabetes, 70 percent die of cardiovascular causes (2). However, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking have declined (3).
Of course, family history also contributes to the risk of heart disease, especially with parents who experienced heart attacks before age 60, according to the Women’s Health Study and the Physician’s Health Study (4). Inactivity and the standard American diet, rich in saturated fat and calories, also contribute to heart disease risk (5). The underlying culprit is atherosclerosis (fatty streaks in the arteries).
The newest potential risk factor is a resting heart rate greater than 80 beats per minute (bpm). In one study, healthy men and women had 18 and 10 percent increased risks of dying from a heart attack, respectively, for every increase of 10 bpm over 80 (6). A normal resting heart rate is usually between 60 and 100 bpm. Thus, you don’t have to have a racing heart rate, just one that is high-normal. All of these risk factors can be overcome, even family history.
The role of medication
Cholesterol and blood pressure medications have been credited to some extent with reducing the risk of heart disease. The compliance with blood pressure medications has increased over the last 10 years from 33 to 50 percent, according to the American Society of Hypertension.
In terms of lipids, statins have played a key role in primary prevention. Statins are effective at not only lowering lipid levels, including total cholesterol and LDL — the “bad” cholesterol — but also inflammation levels that contribute to the risk of cardiovascular disease. The Jupiter trial showed a 55 percent combined reduction in heart disease, stroke and mortality from cardiovascular disease in healthy patients — those with a slightly elevated level of inflammation and normal cholesterol profile — with statins.
The downside of statins is their side effects. Statins have been shown to increase the risk of diabetes in intensive dosing, compared to moderate dosing (7).
Unfortunately, many on statins also suffer from myopathy (muscle pain). I have a number of patients who have complained of muscle pain and cramps. Their goal when they come to see me is to reduce and ultimately discontinue their statins by following a lifestyle modification plan involving diet and exercise. Now I will address the role of lifestyle modification as a powerful ally in this endeavor. There is an abundance of studies showing exciting effects.
There was significant reduction in mortality from cardiovascular disease with participants who were followed for a very long mean duration of 18 years. The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, a prospective (forward-looking) study, investigated 501 healthy men and their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. The authors concluded that those who consumed five servings or more of fruits and vegetables daily with <12 percent saturated fat had a 76 percent reduction in their risk of dying from heart disease compared to those who did not (8). The authors theorized that eating more fruits and vegetables helped to displace saturated fats from the diet. These results are impressive and, most importantly, to achieve them it only required a modest change in diet.
The Nurses’ Health Study shows that these results are also seen in women, with lifestyle modification reducing the risk of sudden cardiac death (SCD). Many times, this is the first manifestation of heart disease in women. The authors looked at four parameters of lifestyle modification, including a Mediterranean-type diet, exercise, smoking and body mass index. There was a decrease in SCD that was dose dependent, meaning the more factors incorporated, the greater the risk reduction. There was as much as a 92 percent decrease in SCD risk when all four parameters were followed (9). Thus, it is possible to almost eliminate the risk of SCD for women with lifestyle modifications.
Heart risk and decreased sexual function in men
A meta-analysis (group of studies) showed that with lifestyle modifications and medication therapies, the risk of cardiovascular disease was reduced significantly, which appeared to result in improvements in erectile dysfunction (10). The lifestyle modifications included dietary changes and increased physical activity. When statin medications were not included, the risk reduction remained relatively constant, demonstrating the strength of lifestyle changes. This research is important, since those with chronic erectile dysfunction are likely to have heart disease within two to five years, according to the authors.
How do you know that you are reducing your risk of heart disease and how long does it take?
These are good questions that I have been asked by a number of patients. We use cardiac biomarkers, including inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein, blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass index. A cohort (a certain group of people) study helped answer these questions. It studied both high-risk participants and patients with heart disease. The results showed an improvement in biomarkers, as well as in cognitive function and overall quality of life.
Participants followed extensive lifestyle modification: a plant-based, whole foods diet accompanied by exercise and stress management. The results were statistically significant with all parameters measured. The best part is the results occurred over a very short period to time — three months from the start of the trial (11). Many patients I have seen have had similar results.
Ideally, if patient needs to use medications to treat risk factors for heart disease, it is for the short term. For some patients, it may be appropriate to use medication and lifestyle changes together; for others, lifestyle modifications may be sufficient, as long as patients are willing to take an active role.
References: (1) Lancet. 1999;353(9147):89. (2) Diabetes Care. 2010 Feb; 33(2):442-449. (3) JAMA. 2005;293(15):1868. (4) Circulation. 2001;104(4):393. (5) Lancet. 2004;364(9438):93. (6) J Epidemiol Community Health. 2010 Feb;64(2):175-181. (7) JAMA. 2011;305(24):2556-2564. (8) J Nutr. March 1, 2005;135(3):556-561. (9) JAMA. 2011 Jul 6;306(1):62-69. (10) Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(20):1797-1803. (11) Am J Cardiol. 2011;108(4):498-507.
Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.