Tips for a heart-healthy life

February is American Heart Month.
Photo by iStock/Sorbetto

With the rush of the holidays and New Year’s celebrations behind us, February is a good time to remind everyone of the importance of staying healthy, which also can align with maintaining New Year’s resolutions. American Heart Month is promoted in hospitals and health organizations throughout Grand Rapids to keep everyone safe from cardiovascular disease.

Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in men and women, though 80% of coronary artery disease and plaque buildup is preventable through change in lifestyle, according to doctors.

“The main culprit is lifestyle, and if we were doing better with diet, doing better with exercise, managing stress, sleeping a little bit better and not drinking too much, the overwhelming majority of the patients who have heart disease would not have it,” said Thomas Boyden, M.D. and program director of preventive cardiology at Spectrum Health.

Besides those with chronic medical conditions, the risk of heart disease can be lowered through paying attention to basic health needs. Medication provides only temporary solutions.

“Bypass surgery goes around disease, stents compress disease, but they don’t eliminate it. So that disease still exists in a patient and much of their risk of that disease is still there even after procedures. Medications help control the risk of a disease, but they don’t change the disease,” Boyden said.

Boyden called nutrition and exercise the most critical components. He has found the Mediterranean diet to be the most effective in reducing risk. While many drug trials have seen differences in the placebo versus the real drug changes in a year, the Mediterranean diet saw changes within a month.

The Mediterranean diet, which is a plant-based diet involving the elimination of all animal products, reduced fats and oils, has been backed by the Cleveland Clinic and the University of California, San Francisco. Boyden said the combination of nutrition, stress management and exercise can help reverse heart disease.

For those struggling with heart disease or looking to take preventive measures, Boyden suggested educating family members and prioritizing sleep. Boyden uses nutrition as treatment as often as medication. The help of family members to enforce diet change can be vital. Sleep is another critical component to heart health, as many patients also are diagnosed with sleep apnea. Inadequate sleep leads to increased stress levels, which advances plaque buildup. Identifying sources of stress can lead to health improvement and become the catalyst for finding ways to relax.

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