Could You Be At Risk Of Heart Disease?

If I asked you about the leading cause of deaths for adults in the United States, what would you say?

Many people lean towards cancer, hearing about it often in the news or as plot lines in their favorite television dramas. The true deadly culprit, however, is heart disease. Heart disease causes 1 in 7 deaths in the United States killing more than 360,000 Americans per year. With these high odds against us, it’s no wonder that millions of Americans take prescribed medications to lower their risk of heart disease. Medications, though, come with their own set of risks, and many high-risk factors for heart disease can be treated without the use of prescription drugs. We want to encourage you to learn more about your potential risk of heart disease and ways that you can reduce it naturally.

What Are the Risk Factors for Heart Disease?

Heart disease risk factors can be divided by those you can control and those you can’t. Age, gender, race, your family’s medical history, and any previous heart attacks or strokes you may have experienced can all increase your risk for heart disease in the future, and these are the risk factors that you have no control over. On the other hand, there are risk factors that you can actively work to reduce in order to protect yourself from heart disease. The three main controllable risk factors for heart disease are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and prediabetes or diabetes.

What Is High Blood Pressure?

High blood pressure occurs when the pressure of your blood is consistently too high against your blood vessel walls. Last year, the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology lowered the healthy blood pressure standards; these new guidelines diagnose 46% of American adults with high blood pressure or hypertension. Untreated high blood pressure can take its toll on the heart and blood vessels, making them work harder and ultimately become less efficient.

How Can You Lower High Blood Pressure?

To fight high blood pressure and reduce a patient’s risk for heart disease, doctors often prescribe diuretics. Diuretics help to reduce the amount of both salt and water in the body, thereby lessening some of the built-up pressure in the blood vessels. As an ancillary medication, doctors may also prescribe an ACE Inhibitor to someone with high blood pressure to prevent the person’s blood vessels from narrowing. Unfortunately for some patients, ACE Inhibitors may cause angioedema, or swelling of bodily tissue. This condition can be fatal if throat tissue begins to swell.

Luckily, there are ways to treat high blood pressure without the need for medications. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan has been endorsed by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), The Mayo Clinic, and the American Heart Association to reduce high blood pressure. The NHLBI went as far as to fund three clinical research trials around the diet in order to determine its true health potentials. During the studies, participants following the DASH diet had lower blood pressure results than those on a typical American diet with or without added fruits and vegetables. The DASH diet encourages people to eat foods low in sodium, saturated fats, and trans fats while consuming foods high in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and protein. Recommended foods on the DASH diet include whole grains, nuts, broccoli, carrots, kale and lean meats.

What Is High Cholesterol?

There are two main types of cholesterol that play a role in heart health. High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are considered “good” cholesterol and actually lower your risk for coronary heart disease and stroke, whereas low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are often referred to as “bad” cholesterol. This “bad” cholesterol can cause plaque to build up in your arteries causing them to harden; this is a condition called atherosclerosis. When this plaque builds up in your arteries, you have a higher chance of suffering from a heart attack or stroke when either a blood clot forms on the plaque or a piece of plaque breaks off and clogs your artery.

How Can You Lower High Cholesterol?

There are two main types of medications prescribed to lower high cholesterol. The first is statins which have been shown to lower LDL levels. Statins have also been shown to cause side effects like muscle damage, liver damage, memory issues, and increased blood sugar levels associated with type 2 diabetes.

Patients with high cholesterol may also be prescribed a blood thinner to prevent blood clots or keep existing blood clots from growing larger over time. Blood thinners can save your life, but again, no medication comes without a risk. If, for example, you cut yourself or become injured while taking blood thinners, your thinned blood will have difficulty clotting which could result in severe, life-threatening bleeding. For this reason, many blood thinners have an antidote to reverse the medication’s effects in the case of an emergency. However, popular anticoagulants like the blood thinner Pradaxa have faced thousands of patient complaints and lawsuits due to severe or fatal incidents caused by the medication’s lack of an antidote.

Before you risk your health and well-being to prescription medications and their adverse side effects to treat high cholesterol, consider changing your diet. Research published by the Harvard Medical School recommends a diet change to lower your LDL. Studies suggest limiting your intake of trans fats and saturated fats, as well as refined sugars and grains. Consider eating foods high in fiber and polyunsaturated fats to lower your LDL, foods that contain plant sterols and stanols to reduce the amount of cholesterol your body absorbs. Here is a list of 11 foods that the Harvard Medical School recommends adding to your diet to fight high cholesterol.

What Is Prediabetes and How Is It Related to Diabetes?

Prediabetes is diagnosed in patients whose blood sugar levels are higher than the healthy standard, but not high enough to be considered diabetic. However, if not treated, prediabetes can become type 2 diabetes. Diabetics are actually 2 to 4 time more likely to develop heart disease than those without it. Adults with diabetes are also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

How To Treat Prediabetes and Diabetes?

Unlike the other two high-risk factors we looked at, diabetes can’t be treated by diet alone. Diabetics need insulin regularly, frequent monitoring of blood glucose levels, and in some cases, supporting medications.

Again, even with these auxiliary medications, we see severe adverse side effects. For example, the drug Invokana is used by patients with type 2 diabetes to block glucose from being absorbed by the body. This can be especially helpful for patients who struggle to maintain lower blood glucose levels. Unfortunately, patients taking Invokana have also experienced serious side effects such as lower body amputation, diabetic ketoacidosis, kidney failure, acute pancreatitis, and cardiovascular issues.

Despite the necessary treatments and monitoring, there are foods that diabetics and pre-diabetics can utilize to avoid blood sugar spikes and avoid taking medications like Invokana. Many diabetics and pre-diabetics have been encouraged to reference the glycemic index when meal planning to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Pre-diabetics are also encouraged by experts to avoid processed, fatty, or canned foods.

How Can You Celebrate Heart Month?

Everyday Americans are suffering from heart disease and adverse drug side effects when in reality, a healthy lifestyle change could be the preventative measure needed to avoid both. February is American Heart Month, and we want to encourage Americans to be proactive with their heart health. Challenge yourself and your loved ones to make new heart-healthy traditions in the kitchen this February! A nutritious diet full of healthy fats, fruits and vegetables could be the first step in reducing your risk for heart disease and creating a lifestyle to keep your family happy and healthy for years to come.

Caitlin Hoff <choff@consumersafety.org

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