Did you know that cardiovascular disease (CVD) remains by far the leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States and most developed countries? CVD includes three main entities: coronary artery disease, stroke and peripheral arterial disease. All of these disease processes are linked to cholesterol deposition within our arteries, otherwise known as atherosclerosis.
Once one arterial system is afflicted by this process, any other artery in the body is considered to be at equal risk. The dangers and fears of this progressive cholesterol deposition is that at some point the blood vessel affected will get clogged. Once clogged, the organ supplied by this vessel will no longer receive the needed blood and oxygen in order to maintain its normal function. In the heart, this results in a heart attack. In the brain, this results in a stroke. In the lower extremities, this results in peripheral arterial disease, which at its worst may lead to an amputation.
There are ways we can prevent, treat and minimize the effects of atherosclerosis. Here are five things you can do to help maintain healthy arteries.
Assess your risk by visiting your doctor. The traditional risk factors include diabetes, high cholesterol, smoking history, elevated blood pressure and a family history of early-onset coronary artery disease. In addition, an important risk factor is obstructive sleep apnea. Your doctor can easily screen for the presence of any of the conditions listed above. If you do have one or several of these risk factors, take them seriously, and you may consider obtaining an evaluation from a cardiologist. People often do not feel the daily ill effects of their underlying risk factors, and this may lead to poor compliance with your doctor’s recommendations. Treating your risk factors involves following the steps below.
Adhere to your treatment. Take your medications regularly and continue to see your doctor to ensure that the targeted endpoints are met. If you have obstructive sleep apnea, use your CPAP mask as directed. Obstructive sleep apnea not only makes you snore at night and feel tired during the day, but it is closely linked to heart disease.
Eat a good diet. Often, adhering to a “heart-healthy diet” has strong benefits in reducing CVD. One diet that has proven to be successful is the Mediterranean Diet, which recommends that you:
- Eat primarily plant-based food: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes.
- Replace butter and saturated fatty oil with healthier olive oil or monounsaturated oil.
- Reduce red meat intake to twice a month.
- Increase fish (not shellfish) and chicken to several times a week.
- Use herbs and spices instead of salt to add flavor to your food.
Exercise. Increase your exercise. This can simply include brisk walking at least 30 minutes a day, 4-6 times a week. You do not have to run a marathon to accrue health benefits from exercise. If you take your car for an errand, park it farthest from the entrance. And remember, if you already have the diagnosis of heart disease, please see your cardiologist before embarking on an exercise program.
Stop smoking. For those who smoke, smoking cessation is essential for “heart-healthy” living. It is understood with great sensitivity that quitting smoking can be intensely difficult. But it begins with the desire that can be cultivated with the help of your physician. Seek out support groups and ask for help.
Paulina Gorodin-Kiliddar, MD, is an assistant professor in the Division of Cardiology at Drexel University College of Medicine. Gorodin-Kiliddar specializes in non-invasive cardiology, including stress testing and echocardiographic imaging. She has a special interest in women and heart disease, as well as prevention. She sees patients in three locations: Center City, Manayunk, and Rittenhouse Square.