Heart disease remains the No. 1 cause of death for men and women across the U.S. But for most people, it’s preventable.
During American Heart Month, WTOP is talking to cardiologists from the MedStar Heart and Vascular Institute to share advice about how we can all be less likely to become a statistic.
“Even in this era of COVID-19, it’s still the No. 1 killer in our country,” said Dr. Allen Taylor, the institute’s chairman of cardiology at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. If you’re a man, there’s a one-in-two chance that you will develop heart disease or blood vessel disease in your lifetime, he said. For a woman, it’s one in three.
“The good news is that heart disease develops over decades, and there’s a long time to improve,” Taylor said. “And our knowledge of how to improve the outlook for heart disease is getting better and better all the time.”
He offers three ways people, even in their 20s and 30s, can do more to boost heart health and avoid cardiovascular disease as they get older.
Tip 1: Know your personal risk and, after age 50, get a calcium scan
Most people know about the need to maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels, to eat well, exercise and not smoke. But often people are less knowledgeable that what’s considered a non-risky level for blood pressure and cholesterol has lowered in recent years, Taylor said. Ask your care providers and keep track of those numbers, he said.
While hereditary factors matter, “as you age, your risk increases because you’re living with risk factors longer,” Taylor said. “And then, in many ways, heart disease is a lifestyle disease. It’s a disease of what we eat and how we eat. And do we exercise? And to some degree, our inheritance,” he said. “So there are some things we can control.”
To quickly assess risk, Taylor recommends that all men over age 50 and women over 60 get a calcium scan. “It’s a fancy X-ray of the chest that tells you if your arteries are developing buildups,” he explained. These scans are the easiest and most personalized way to identify potential concerns fast and be proactive about the potential onset of cardiovascular disease, he said.
Tip 2: Yes, eat better and exercise more, but also lower specific kinds of stress
Although statistics show that only about one in 20 people are doing everything that they could to improve heart health through lifestyle choices, Taylor said, there’s an area that people generally don’t consider and that’s stress.
He’s not talking about the little daily stresses that people face, like the morning commute or what to make for dinner that evening.
“It’s the stress that you can’t relieve and that is coming from outside of you,” Taylor said. “Research shows that that type of stress increases the risk for heart disease. And that type of stress can be as dangerous as even smoking.”
Even though it might take some work, people should focus less on things that they cannot control, he said.
Tip 3: When it comes to dining out, choose less-processed options
Although people generally know that diet affects heart health, they might not realize that less than 1% of restaurant meals are considered healthy, Taylor said.
He was quick to add that he’s not saying to stop dining out or ordering takeout. Instead, people should weigh menu options differently when they decide what to order, Taylor said.
“It’s about eating whole foods, emphasizing fruits and vegetables, whole grains, tree nuts, olive oils, which are very anti-inflammatory,” he said. “If you can eat that sort of whole food diet and avoid really processed foods, that’s a healthier eating style.”