Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Approximately 610,000 Americans die from heart disease every year, making it responsible for one out of every four deaths.

But research shows that you may have more control over heart disease than these numbers would seem to indicate. Lifestyle changes can help prevent and slow the progress of heart disease and other age-related diseases — and may even allow you to reverse it.

What is heart disease?

The term “heart disease” refers to a range of conditions that affects heart health. When we say “heart disease,” most often we are referring to coronary heart disease, which a blood vessel disorder than can lead to a heart attack. Coronary heart disease occurs when the blood vessels become blocked, narrowed, or stiffened, which inhibits blood flow throughout the body. If an artery becomes blocked and blood flow is cut off, it can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

What causes heart disease?

Coronary heart disease is most often caused by a condition called atherosclerosis, which is a buildup of plaque in the arteries. This plaque is made up of cholesterol, fatty deposits, cellular waste, calcium, and other substances in the blood. Atherosclerosis is a slow and progressive disease that may start early in life, but isn’t usually a problem for most people until their 50s or 60s.

Risk factors for atherosclerosis include high blood pressure, high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, smoking, being overweight, diabetes, a sedentary lifestyle, and poor diet.

What causes plaque buildup?

The exact cause of atherosclerosis is unknown, but scientists believe it starts with damage to the inner lining of the artery. This damage can be caused by factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or smoking.

As with any other injury, this causes an inflammatory response, causing cells to build up in the area and form accumulations that eventually rupture and lead to blood clots.

Cholesterol tests have long been used to evaluate the risk of heart disease, but only about 50 percent of people who suffer heart attacks have high levels of LDL cholesterol. Rather than relying on cholesterol screenings, some scientists are now suggesting that high levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) may be another indicator of impending heart trouble. CRP is a substance produced by the liver when inflammation is present in the body. CRP tests have been used to decades to monitor patients with inflammatory diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, and are now being recommended as another way to screen for coronary artery disease.

Treatment for heart disease

Heart disease can be treated with lifestyle modification, medication, and, if necessary, surgery. Recommended lifestyle changes include quitting smoking, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, keeping diabetes under control, exercising, and maintaining a healthy weight.

Dr. Dean Ornish, president and founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in California, has documented evidence that heart disease can be reversed through lifestyle changes. He claims that many of his patients who enrolled in his program while on a heart transplant list improved their cardiovascular health to the point that they no longer required a transplant. Dr. Ornish’s program includes walking at least 30 minutes a day, as well as yoga, meditation, and stress management. He also recommends that patients follow a vegetarian diet composed of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nonfat dairy products.

Fasting mimicking diets have also been shown to improve symptoms associated with heart disease. A fasting mimicking diet consists of a short-term period (typically five days) during which regular foods are replaced with low-calorie, plant-based foods and beverages designed to put the body into a fasting state while still receiving vital nutrients. In a recent study, individuals who participated in a fasting mimicking diet for five days a month over a three-month period had lower blood pressure, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol than a control group who followed an unrestricted diet. They also had lower levels of C-reactive protein, suggesting that the diet successfully reduced internal inflammation. Larger studies are needed to further evaluate the effects of fasting mimicking diets on age-related disease, but researchers state they are a safe and effective approach for reducing risk factors and symptoms of disease.

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