Maria Fabrizio for NPR
Maria Fabrizio for NPR
These days, it's easy to feel vulnerable when it comes to your health. I talk about that a lot with my patients, many of whom are feeling heightened fear and uncertainty during the pandemic.
The best part of my job as a primary care doctor is reassuring them that we're not powerless, even against some of the biggest threats to our health. In the case of COVID-19, we can do things like get vaccinated.
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Heart disease is indiscriminate — it's the No. 1 killer of men, women and people of most races and ethnicities in the U.S. Coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease, is especially brutal. It accounts for about 55% of those yearly deaths.
When plaques made of cholesterol, fat, calcium and other waste build up in the vessels of the heart — what we call atherosclerosis — coronary heart disease develops. It's the primary cause of heart attacks, which occur when those vessels become completely closed off by a growing plaque, or one that's shaken loose, and stops blood supply to the heart. It happens to someone in the U.S. once every 40 seconds.
It's startling to think that something so deadly could strike without warning.
"If we look at people who have had a heart attack or died suddenly from coronary artery disease, half of those individuals never had a symptom before; the very first presentation of their heart disease is an unheralded heart attack, or worse," says Dr. Michael Shapiro, cardiologist and director of Wake Forest Baptist Health's Center Center for Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease.
Despite the grim statistics, there is one major upside: With our choices, we have a lot of control over the main risk factors for coronary heart disease.
Over the past year, it may have been harder to make healthy choices, but it's still possible to take steps toward getting your heart health back on track, even as the pandemic grinds on.
And perhaps more importantly, making lifestyle changes will be beneficial regardless of your age, and even have the capacity to reverse existing damage.
Here are some ways to get started.
Establish a baseline and estimate your risk
A good first step is to get a baseline reading of three key factors: your blood pressure, average blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
These numbers are sometimes the only clues we have to a patient's risk of heart disease, and that's because three of the most common culprits in heart attacks — high blood pressure, diabetes and abnormal cholesterol levels — are often present without any symptoms.
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A primary care provider can help you find out what these measurements are now, how often they should be checked and how to help them get (or stay) where they should be.
Risk calculators using this kind of data can help you and your doctor figure out your chances of suffering a stroke or heart attack. Knowing that risk can be scary, but motivating, too.
Aim for a healthy weight and ditch the packaged foods
Hopping on a scale is another important step you can take right now, since weight is one of the most influential factors in our heart health.
While it's a strong, independent risk factor for heart attack, obesity is also commonly to blame for high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and out of control cholesterol levels. For all of these conditions, weight loss is the first, and best, option for treatment in most cases.
You can use a body mass index calculator — like this one from the National Institutes of Health — to find out your current and ideal BMI. The NIH also offers free online resources, from healthy recipes to a body weight planner that tells you how many calories to eat per day to reach your weight goal in a chosen time frame.
Pursuing a healthy weight doesn't have to be complicated, says Lona Sandon, an associate professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
"Perhaps the easiest place to start is to cut back on portion sizes, so instead of eating a full plate, eat only three-quarters of a plate," she says. A small change like that can save up to 500 calories a day "without really having to think about it."
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She also suggests cutting down on (or cutting out altogether) foods that are heavily processed and sold in a package — especially deli items and other processed meats like sausage. Eliminating high-sodium foods like these may help lower your blood pressure.
Other suggestions include getting 2 to 3 cups each of fruits and vegetables to maximize your heart health, adding foods with plenty of fiber — think beans or oatmeal — and eating nuts and healthy fats like avocado that are cholesterol-friendly.
There's no doubt that carrying around extra pounds is dangerous for your heart, especially as you age. The good news is that reaching a healthy weight at nearly any stage of life can help improve blood flow to the heart.
While a better diet is invaluable, "exercise is the best medicine," says Shapiro, the Wake Forest cardiologist.
Mountains of evidence show that the benefits of exercise on heart health are huge and multifactorial. It helps burn calories, promote weight loss and lower cholesterol, but exercise also conditions the heart just like other muscles in the body.
When we ask the heart to work more during physical activity, it floods smaller vessels to get more blood pumping through the heart and out to the body more quickly and efficiently. The same vessels may not otherwise be capable of supplying blood if others get blocked, as in the case of heart attack.
If we keep exercising regularly and asking the heart for more help, it will get stronger over time, eventually requiring less work from other vessels that have been expanding and pumping hard to get blood where it needs to go, lowering blood pressure as a result.
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Getting back into exercise, if it's been on the backburner for the past year, can be hard. But don't overthink it, just get moving.
"Unfortunately, the notion for many people who aren't exercising is 'If I really want to exercise for cardiovascular health, I have to jog 5 miles a day or do something really, really strenuous,' but we're not as worried about the intensity of the exercise," says Shapiro.
He tells patients that any type of movement they're committed to doing every day will help. Activity as simple as brisk walking can do wonders for cardiovascular health. Other physical activity like climbing stairs, doing yard work or taking 10,000 steps at home can all benefit your heart when you're doing it regularly.
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Short bursts of exercise are great for heart health, too, and can be done in smaller spaces and in less time. Just 60 seconds of high-intensity exercise, alternating with a minute or so of rest in between, for a total of 10 to 15 minutes almost every day, gets you to the 75 minutes a week of high-intensity exercise recommended for all Americans. Think fast lunges, running in place, burpees, jumping jacks, pushups — anything that makes it challenging to talk in full sentences while you're doing it.
Talk to your doctor first if you have concerns about kick-starting your exercise routine given your current fitness level.
It's never too late to quit smoking
Smoking is one of the riskiest things you can do when it comes to heart health, since it speeds up the creation of those cholesterol-laden plaques and has other inflammatory effects on our tiny heart vessels.
To stop smoking means an instant drop in the risk of having a heart attack, and quitters can boast a drastic drop the risk of a heart attack within a year tobacco-free. Studies show the risk keeps dropping dramatically over time, and can eventually reach that of a nonsmoker.
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There's a lot of help available to help you quit smoking, even during the pandemic, with virtual support for smoking cessation counseling and telehealth visits to discuss options like nicotine patches or prescription medications.
Investigate your family's heart history
Find out if any of your relatives have had a premature heart attack — before the age of 55 in men and 65 in women — even if they survived. As a rule of thumb, any heart-related medical event in a biologic family member, including the sudden or unexplained death of a young person, is worth telling your doctor.
It's important information to have, since heart attacks in people in their 30s and 40s are on the rise. Studies show that siblings, parents and even adult children of premature heart attack patients are at considerably higher risk.
But family history doesn't have the final say on heart health, says Dr. Stephen Kopecky of the Mayo Clinic, a cardiologist who focuses on prevention and treating factors like hereditary cholesterol disorders.
"The bottom line is that genes will increase your risk maybe 30 or 40%. But if you have an unhealthy lifestyle, it will increase your risk 300 to 400%," Kopecky says. "Some think, 'If I do have those genes I'm defeated completely,' or think it won't help them to live a healthy lifestyle. But that's not true — you can actually change how your body responds to those genes with your lifestyle, a healthy diet and exercise."
Pandemic or not, never ignore the red flags
Coronary heart disease doesn't develop overnight. But the complications — such as a heart attack — can come on suddenly, and doctors warn against delaying medical attention because of the pandemic.
Symptoms of heart trouble may include chest pain, feeling weak or passing out, shortness of breath or sudden pain in the arms or jaw and should prompt a call to 911 and a trip to the emergency room. The sooner that happens, the greater likelihood of survival.
Other symptoms may be more subtle — mild, intermittent chest discomfort or shortness of breath with normal activities, new or severe acid reflux, sudden or unexplained nausea or fatigue. All of these symptoms warrant a trip to the doctor as soon as possible, and they're more suspicious for anyone over 50 or in women, who are known to have unusual symptoms of heart attack.
Your goal is to avoid reaching this point, and the best way to do that is to go ahead and start making changes, even if they're small.
"The idea that you'll always get warning signs before something bad happens just isn't true," says Kopecky. "If you wait to think about your heart until there's signs of disease, you've lost part of the battle."
Dr. Kristen Kendrick is a board-certified family physician in Washington, D.C., and a health and media fellow at NPR and Georgetown University School of Medicine.
Unfortunately, there isn't a cure for coronary artery disease, and you can't reverse this condition once you're diagnosed. But you can make lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of developing further health problems, such as a heart attack.How can I reverse heart disease fast? ›
To reverse heart disease, he says, means becoming a vegetarian. You'll fill your plate with fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nonfat dairy, and egg whites, and you'll avoid fats, refined sugar, and processed carbs. “You want to eat foods in their natural form as much as possible," Ornish says.Can plaque buildup in arteries be reversed? ›
The key is lowering LDL and making lifestyle changes.
"Making plaque disappear is not possible, but we can shrink and stabilize it," says cardiologist Dr. Christopher Cannon, a Harvard Medical School professor. Plaque forms when cholesterol (above, in yellow) lodges in the wall of the artery.
Summary: Exercise can reverse damage to sedentary, aging hearts and help prevent risk of future heart failure -- if it's enough exercise, and if it's begun in time, according to a new study by cardiologists.Can Walking reduce heart blockage? ›
Based on a meta-analysis, Zheng and colleagues  estimate that 8 MET hours/week of walking (approximately 30 minutes/day, 5 days/week, consistent with PA recommendations  is associated with a 19% reduction in coronary heart disease (CHD) risk.Can heart disease be cured by exercise? ›
Being physically active is a major step toward good heart health. It's one of your most effective tools for strengthening the heart muscle, keeping your weight under control and warding off the artery damage from high cholesterol, high blood sugar and high blood pressure that can lead to heart attack or stroke.What dissolves artery plaque? ›
There are no quick fixes for melting away plaque, but people can make key lifestyle changes to stop more of it accumulating and to improve their heart health. In serious cases, medical procedures or surgery can help to remove blockages from within the arteries.Does oatmeal remove plaque arteries? ›
Oats. Oats are an excellent choice for those who have atherosclerosis or are trying to prevent clogged arteries. Eating oats can help significantly reduce atherosclerosis risk factors, including high levels of total and LDL (bad) cholesterol ( 39 ).Does garlic dissolve plaque? ›
One small study, which involved 55 patients ages 40-75, tracked how the garlic supplement worked for a year. In the end, researchers found those who took the supplement saw an 80% reduction in soft plaque.Which drink is best for heart? ›
- Sparkling water (try adding chopped fruit or herbs; for example, fresh mint).
- Unflavoured milk.
- Plant-based milks with added calcium, like soy, almond, oat, rice milk.
- Small glass (125ml) of 100% fruit or vegetable juice.
Is it possible to Unclog Arteries Naturally? Although it isn't possible to remove plaque from your arterial walls without surgery, you can halt and prevent future plaque build-up.How long does it take to recondition your heart? ›
Following cardio-thoracic surgery, it's generally six to eight weeks. With any muscle injury, you need time to convalesce and heal, even if you're an elite athlete. A heart attack involves an injury to the muscle that operates the entire body, and it doesn't heal overnight.At what age heart blockage occurs? ›
Heart disease—and the conditions that lead to it—can happen at any age. High rates of obesity and high blood pressure among younger people (ages 35–64) are putting them at risk for heart disease earlier in life.What is a good distance to walk everyday? ›
Walking is a form of low impact, moderate intensity exercise that has a range of health benefits and few risks. As a result, the CDC recommend that most adults aim for 10,000 steps per day . For most people, this is the equivalent of about 8 kilometers, or 5 miles.Is coffee good for heart patient? ›
Drinking one to two cups of coffee a day may help ward off heart failure, when a weakened heart has difficulty pumping enough blood to the body.How much should you sleep a day to help prevent heart disease? ›
According to the American Heart Association, studies have found that most people need six to eight hours of sleep each day and that too little or too much can increase the risk of cardiovascular problems.What is the best exercise for heart problems? ›
Choose an aerobic activity such as walking, swimming, light jogging, or biking. Do this at least 3 to 4 times a week. Always do 5 minutes of stretching or moving around to warm up your muscles and heart before exercising.What is the best exercise for heart failure? ›
Choose an aerobic activity that you enjoy such as walking (outside or on a treadmill), stationary cycling, swimming, and rowing or water aerobics. Ask your doctor before lifting weights. Exercise should be done regularly to gain the benefits; national guidelines suggest most days of the week if not everyday.Can you be fit and have heart disease? ›
When someone as fit as Bob Harper, personal trainer and host of “The Biggest Loser,” has a heart attack, it's a wake-up call for everyone. You can live an extremely healthy lifestyle and still have a heart attack.What foods will clean out my arteries? ›
- Fatty Fish. ...
- Flax Seeds. ...
- Berries. ...
- Citrus Fruits. ...
- Extra virgin olive oil. ...
- Avocado. ...
- Legumes. ...
HDL, on the other hand, helps protect against heart disease. Niacin, or Vitamin B3, is the best agent known to raise blood levels of HDL, which helps remove cholesterol deposits from the artery walls.How do you clear clogged arteries without surgery? ›
Through angioplasty, our cardiologists are able to treat patients with blocked or clogged coronary arteries quickly without surgery. During the procedure, a cardiologist threads a balloon-tipped catheter to the site of the narrowed or blocked artery and then inflates the balloon to open the vessel.Which fruit is best for heart? ›
Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries are jam-packed with important nutrients that play a central role in heart health. Berries are also rich in antioxidants like anthocyanins, which protect against the oxidative stress and inflammation that contribute to the development of heart disease ( 9 ).How do you know if my arteries are clogged? ›
Signs of Clogged Arteries
It can cause symptoms such as chest pain, breathlessness, heart palpitations and sweating, which may be triggered by physical activity. Transient Ischemic Attacks (TIAs) or mini-strokes can occur when there is a blockage affecting the brain.
One study showed that eating just one half to one clove of garlic per day decreased total serum cholesterol levels by 9 percent in the participants studied. 7 Nuts. If you're looking for a healthy snack to munch on while benefiting from a natural way to clean arteries, reach for a handful of nuts.Which is better for cholesterol fish oil or garlic? ›
For decades, fish oil has been the go-to for those looking to improve their cardiovascular health. But, according to a growing number of studies, Aged Garlic Extract (AGE) might be even better!How long does it take for apple cider vinegar to clean arteries? ›
However, there are many natural remedies like Apple Cider Vinegar for blocked arteries. Scientifically 90% of people get relief from high cholesterol in just 30-40 days after using this remedy.What is the healthiest morning drink? ›
- Honey and cinnamon drink. Have a glass of honey and cinnamon drink first thing in the morning. ...
- Lemon Juice. ...
- Cinnamon Green Tea. ...
- Coconut water. ...
- Aloe juice. ...
- Pomegranate tea. ...
- Fruit smoothies. ...
- Green tea lassi.
- Sweat It Out. Sweating is a simple and natural way to detoxify your body. ...
- Focus on Breathing. ...
- Try a Detox Drink. ...
- Focus on Fiber. ...
- Support Your Liver and Kidneys.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables: Eat a variety to help gain a diverse supply of nutrients.
- Add more good fats to your diet: Good fats are also called unsaturated fats. ...
- Cut sources of saturated fat: Examples of foods to cut include fatty meats and dairy products.
Although we're not sure where this claim originated from, we do know there is no scientific evidence proving apple cider vinegar clears clogged arteries. In fact, vinegar should not be substituted for standard treatment.Why is aspirin no longer recommended? ›
“We have since learned that in an era where we control hypertension and high cholesterol better for primary prevention, aspirin may be only minimally beneficial with an increased bleeding risk, especially for older adults,” Dr. Ziaeian says.Do eggs clog arteries? ›
For example, egg yolks contain phosphatidylcholine, a chemical that can contribute to clogged arteries, he said. Eggs are a primary source of dietary cholesterol, but they also contain high-quality lean protein and many vitamins, the study team notes in the journal Heart.How can I improve my heart health fast? ›
- Good habits.
- Manage stress.
- Quit smoking.
- After heart attack.
- Lower mobility.
Most healthy people can eat up to seven eggs a week without increasing their risk of heart disease. Some studies have shown that this level of egg consumption might even help prevent certain types of stroke and a serious eye condition called macular degeneration that can lead to blindness.Can end stage heart failure be reversed? ›
There is no cure for end stage heart failure. At this stage, people will need to make difficult decisions regarding how much treatment they would like without sacrificing their quality of life. They may also consider palliative or hospice care.Can 100 heart blockage be reversed? ›
“A 100% blocked artery does not mean a patient has to undergo a bypass surgery. Most of these blocks can be safely removed by performing an Angioplasty and the long term results are as good or are better than surgery.Can a blocked heart artery clear itself? ›
Is it possible to Unclog Arteries Naturally? Although it isn't possible to remove plaque from your arterial walls without surgery, you can halt and prevent future plaque build-up.What dissolves artery plaque? ›
There are no quick fixes for melting away plaque, but people can make key lifestyle changes to stop more of it accumulating and to improve their heart health. In serious cases, medical procedures or surgery can help to remove blockages from within the arteries.How do you remove plaque from arteries naturally? ›
This includes eating a diet that consists of:
Through angioplasty, our cardiologists are able to treat patients with blocked or clogged coronary arteries quickly without surgery. During the procedure, a cardiologist threads a balloon-tipped catheter to the site of the narrowed or blocked artery and then inflates the balloon to open the vessel.What are the warning signs of clogged arteries? ›
- Chest pain (angina). You may feel pressure or tightness in your chest. ...
- Shortness of breath. You may feel like you can't catch your breath.
- Fatigue. If the heart can't pump enough blood to meet your body's needs, you may feel unusually tired.
- Heart attack.
Statins help lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, also known as “bad” cholesterol, in the blood. They draw cholesterol out of plaque and stabilize plaque, Blaha says.What vitamins help unclog arteries? ›
HDL, on the other hand, helps protect against heart disease. Niacin, or Vitamin B3, is the best agent known to raise blood levels of HDL, which helps remove cholesterol deposits from the artery walls.Does oatmeal remove plaque arteries? ›
Oats. Oats are an excellent choice for those who have atherosclerosis or are trying to prevent clogged arteries. Eating oats can help significantly reduce atherosclerosis risk factors, including high levels of total and LDL (bad) cholesterol ( 39 ).Does apple cider vinegar clean arteries? ›
Although we're not sure where this claim originated from, we do know there is no scientific evidence proving apple cider vinegar clears clogged arteries. In fact, vinegar should not be substituted for standard treatment.Does apple cider vinegar help clear plaque from arteries? ›
Apple cider vinegar alone is unlikely to unclog your arteries and reverse atherosclerosis. The key is to make lasting lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, losing excess weight and staying physically active.Does aspirin remove plaque from arteries? ›
"Our findings show that aspirin not only decreases inflammation in the arteries and the growth of the atherosclerotic plaque, but it also beneficially alters the consistency of the plaque that remains."Does turmeric clean your arteries? ›
Turmeric is one of nature's most potent anti-inflammatories, due to a compound called curcumin. This not only reduces arterial inflammation, but also fatty deposits known as plaque, by as much as 26%! That's pretty impressive for a pinch of spice.
Some studies have shown that garlic and garlic supplements may have positive effects on heart health by preventing cell damage, regulating cholesterol and lowering blood pressure. Other research shows that garlic supplements may also reduce plaque buildup in the arteries.
For example, egg yolks contain phosphatidylcholine, a chemical that can contribute to clogged arteries, he said. Eggs are a primary source of dietary cholesterol, but they also contain high-quality lean protein and many vitamins, the study team notes in the journal Heart.