Cardiovascular disease affects millions of North Americans every day, costing billions of health care dollars to treat, yet they are preventable! Cardiovascular disease is a term that indicates plaque build-up in the arteries or veins of the heart, around the heart, and all around the body. It can be focused in your limbs, in the brain, around the heart, or anywhere in the vessels of the body.
Cardiovascular disease, often simply called "heart disease", is the umbrella title for a number of chronic vessel-related conditions that a person can experience. The difference between these diseases can be confusing, and they aren’t often explained in the most easy-to-understand manner. There are 4 main types of diseases that fall under this umbrella that are related to lifestyle choices:
Ischemic heart disease: This condition occurs when the body has a difficult time circulating oxygen-rich blood where it needs to be. It’s caused by hardening and blockage of the major arteries around the heart. The hardening we're talking about here is atherosclerotic plaque, which is made up of hardened oxidized cholesterol molecules, calcium, fat, and other substances found in the blood. When arteries harden and fill with plaque, they also become inflamed, further constricting blood flow. This hardening and build-up of ‘plaque’ blockages is called arteriosclerosis. If the blockages become severe enough, they can break off and plug the artery further down the line, or become so large that they completely block blood flow. This can lead to a heart attack, or what is also called a ‘myocardial infarction’. You can find out what your risk of ischemic heart disease is by asking your doctor for a blood lipid profile, a stress test to monitor for heart abnormalities, and a glucose tolerance test, which can also indicate a risk for diabetes. Getting these tests done can be scary sometimes, but it may save your life, or prevent you from getting the disease in the long run.
Cerebrovascular disease (Stroke): Did you know that arteries all over the body can be affected by arteriosclerosis? This type of cardiovascular disease refers specifically to plaques in the brain. A stroke is when blood supply to the brain is either partially or completely blocked, which can lead to cognitive and neural deficits, if left long enough. It’s estimated that 2 million brain cells die per minute during a stroke. Be aware of the signs and symptoms of a stroke, such as weakness, dizziness, difficulty speaking or performing motor functions, and difficulty with eyesight. Knowing these signs and symptoms, and calling 911 if you suspect someone having a stroke, could help save a life, including your own.
Peripheral vascular disease: This type of CVD refers to veins and arteries further away from the brain and heart. Patients typically experience plaques and inflammation in the blood vessels in their arms and legs. This can cause pain, and, in the event of restricted blood flow or clot, loss of the limb. Patients with this type of disease often experience claudication, which is pain or fatigue in a limb affected by a plaque as a result of reduced blood flow and oxygen supply to the muscles and tissues. The plaque build-up, as in stroke and ischemic heart disease, is caused by arteriosclerosis. Patients with this condition are advised to commit to lifestyle modification, and may require medication or surgical procedures to slow down the disease’s progression and to prevent heart attack and stroke.
Heart failure: Heart failure usually starts to occur after a patient has experienced damage to the heart muscle and/or surrounding tissues, such as after experiencing a heart attack or other coronary event. Due to the damage, the heart has a harder time performing its usual pumping action, and therefore has a reduced ability to supply blood to the rest of the body. Many patients experience shortness of breath, since a reduced blood supply means a more difficult time exchanging oxygen with the rest of the body’s tissues. They may also experience fluid accumulation called edema (visible swelling), which most commonly occurs in the feet and ankles. There is no cure for heart failure, but it can be managed with lifestyle modification, medication, and potentially surgical procedures.
Studies have linked high fat diets (especially saturated and trans fats) to arteriosclerotic plaque build-up and inflammation and hardening of arteries, but have also shown that some individuals are more susceptible to plaque build-up than others, particularly if they have relatives with CVDs.
Risk factors for having a stroke or heart attack:
Smoking and second-hand smoke
Overweight and obesity
A diet high in animal protein, saturated fat, trans fat, and added sugars
High mental or emotional stress
Uncontrolled Type 2 diabetes
Lack of exercise
Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention:
Not smoking and avoiding second-hand smoke
A Mediterranean-style, vegetarian, near-vegan, or vegan diet
A diet low in saturated fats, trans fats, and added sugars
Healthy weight maintenance
Moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise
Stress reduction strategies
While much research does point to CVDs and other chronic diseases being the result of high fat intake, a high intake of simple sugars also damages arteries, and can lead to diabetes (which, as mentioned above, gives an increased risk of stroke or heart attack). To reduce the risk of heart disease, it is important to focus on eating plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts and leaner meats (if you aren’t vegetarian). By filling up on a variety of these healthy foods, you don’t have to be as concerned about ‘cutting’ foods out of your diet. The more you fill yourself up with the nutritious foods at each meal, the less you will want to eat foods that are less beneficial for your health. Eating healthy should not be a chore! Find healthy recipes that you truly enjoy, and that don’t require hours of preparation. For delicious and easy heart healthy recipe ideas, visit this website.
Additional risk-reduction lifestyle modifications that you can make are to consider quitting or reducing the amount of smoking you partake in, reduce or stop alcohol intake, and to find healthy ways to relieve stress; this can even include exercise. Many people become overwhelmed with the number of things that they should do to reduce their disease and obesity risk, and this is perfectly normal. Start with just one risk factor, and take small steps every day towards improving it. There are many apps that can motivate and guide you through your goal-setting process. They break it down into small, manageable steps and help you through the ups and downs of making a sustainable lifestyle change. Check out these apps to help you become successful in making those changes.
Research for prevention and treatment of heart disease is incrementally pointing towards a diet based on whole vegetables and fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and moderate amounts of omega-3-rich fish.
If you have a science-brain like me and are interested in statistics and scientific studies, have a look at this link for a video on how a nutritious, whole foods diet based on plant foods can combat heart disease and other chronic diseases:
Click for more information on Cardiovascular Diseases
For more information on breaking bad habits, watch this!
For an empowering, perspective-changing insight into a brilliant researcher of our time, and the future of chronic disease management, watch Peter Attia as he reveals his new approach to health care and patient support.
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