It’s February, which means it’s American Heart Month. Heart disease, unfortunately, continues to be the leading cause of death in the United States and around the globe. Its insidious nature, often manifesting as conditions like hypertension (high blood pressure) over decades without discernible symptoms, underscores the need for early diagnosis. We spoke with Dr. Sunny Intwala, M.D., a cardiologist and clinical exercise physiologist at Nuvance Health, to learn about the six latest ways to detect and prevent cardiovascular disease (in addition to routine screenings), including smart lifestyle changes we should all make to improve overall heart health.
The Portfolio Diet
This strategic nutritional approach targets the reduction of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol—the “bad” cholesterol that is a key player in plaque formation that leads to heart attacks and strokes. The Portfolio Diet, created by British physician David J.A. Jenkins, M.D., is comprised of cholesterol-lowering foods such as plant sterols (they include fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and wheat germ), soy protein (such as tofu, tempeh, and soy milk), tree nuts (including almonds, walnuts, and pistachios), and soluble fiber (like oats, peas, beans, apples, citrus, carrots, and barley).
The idea behind this eating plan is to swap foods you normally consume for cholesterol-lowering foods—such as replacing red meat with tofu and snacking on a handful of nuts instead of a highly processed snack like pretzels. This heart-healthy diet is similar to the more popular DASH and Mediterranean diets—all emphasize eating whole grains, fruits, vegetables, plant protein, nuts, and plant oils—but the Portfolio Diet is more plant based. Incorporating it into your meal plan can potentially mitigate the risk of heart disease, underscoring the significance of choosing heart-healthy foods within a comprehensive cardiovascular health strategy.
Semaglutide for Weight Loss
Originally developed for diabetes management, semaglutide has emerged as a weight-loss medication (two brands include the diabetes drug Ozempic and the weight loss medication Wegovy). Recent studies reveal semaglutide’s effectiveness in reducing hunger, inducing feelings of fullness, and curbing appetite. Weight loss, especially through medications like semaglutide, has been linked to a diminished risk of heart attack and stroke.
Results of a recent trial published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed a 20 percent reduction in major heart events among heart disease patients on semaglutide for an average of 33 months, likely attributable to improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and insulin sensitivity. This underscores the pivotal role of weight management in a comprehensive heart health strategy. The FDA recommends Wegovy if you meet one of the following criteria: Have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater; or have a BMI of 27 or greater plus at least one weight-related condition, such as high blood pressure or cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes.
Mammograms and Heart Disease Detection
Although mammograms are primarily used for breast cancer screening, not for detecting heart disease, recent research has suggested a potential link between breast arterial calcification observed on mammograms and an increased risk of heart disease. The calcification of breast arteries may indicate atherosclerosis, a condition associated with heart disease.
While mammograms themselves are not a preventive measure for heart disease, the association between breast arterial calcification and heart disease risk may prompt healthcare providers to consider cardiovascular risk assessments for women with such findings. It underscores the importance of a holistic approach to women’s health and the potential for shared risk factors between breast health and heart health.
A Mediterranean Lifestyle
You’ve heard about the overall health benefits of following a Mediterranean diet, but what may be even better for you is adhering to a Mediterranean lifestyle. In addition to consuming certain foods (plenty of produce, fish, and healthy fats), the Mediterranean lifestyle includes physical activity and socialization—a holistic approach that contributes to heart health and has been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular events.
Chronic stress, a well-known contributor to cardiovascular disease, is something too many of us deal with on a regular basis. But there are proven ways to ease anxiety. Try these stress management techniques:
- Mindfulness and Meditation: Practices like meditation, deep breathing exercises, and guided imagery can lower stress and positively influence blood pressure, heart rate, and overall cardiovascular function.
- Yoga: Combining physical postures, breath control, and meditation, yoga in its many forms is linked to reduced stress, improved heart rate variability, as well as lower blood pressure.
- Regular Physical Activity: Exercise, a potent stress reducer, contributes to overall well-being.
- Quality Sleep: Establishing healthy sleep patterns is essential for heart health; poor sleep is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Exercise for Heart Health
Regular physical activity strengthens the heart muscle, improving blood circulation and oxygen levels. A comprehensive exercise regimen should include:
- Aerobic Exercise: Regular activities such as brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, or dancing enhance cardiovascular fitness and lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
- Strength Training: Incorporating a variety of muscle-building exercises (including lifting weights or doing push-ups, sit-ups, and squats) at least twice a week improves metabolism and aids in weight management.
- High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): This is very effective in enhancing cardiovascular fitness, burning calories, and boosting heart health.
Before adopting any of these practices, talk to your doctor. Regular medical checkups and open communication with your healthcare provider are integral in crafting an individualized and comprehensive cardiovascular health plan tailored to your specific conditions and risk factors.