What is Cardiovascular Disease, Causes & How to Prevent

You have no control over some risk factors, such as heredity, advancing age, and gender. And some people have a higher risk because of an inherited disorder called familial hypercholesterolemia, which causes high blood cholesterol.

Far more often, cardiovascular disease is caused by lifestyle choices. Inactivity and cigarette smoking along with a poor diet are the major lifestyle factors that figure in cardiovascular disease risk. These controllable risk factors lead to high blood cholesterol, which promotes the buildup of fatty deposits in the coronary arteries and leads to angina and heart attacks.

Other conditions that affect heart disease risk include obesity, which increases the risk of heart attack and contributes to other cardiovascular risk factors; high blood pressure, which can lead to a stroke and heart attack; diabetes, a disease that affects the heart, blood vessels, and other vital organs; and excessive alcohol use, which harms the heart and blood vessels. Many studies have confirmed that diet is a major force in both the cause and prevention of heart disease.

Nutrition Connection

If the wrong diet can promote heart disease, the right one can reduce the risk, even for those who have uncontrollable high-risk factors. A heart-healthy diet is the same commonsense one that protects against cancer, diabetes, and obesity.

Here are the guidelines:

-Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Numerous studies correlate a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables with a 25% or better reduction in heart attacks and strokes.

-Seek sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon, sardines, herring, trout, and other fatty cold-water fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce the tendency of blood to clot. Consume 2 or 3 servings of fish a week to get this benefit. Omega-3 fats are also found in plant sources including canola, soybean, and flaxseed oil; ground flaxseed; and nuts.

-25% of all deaths in the United States in 2008 were caused by heart disease.

-Include soluble fiber. Pectin, oat bran, and other types of soluble fiber help lower cholesterol and improve glucose metabolism in people predisposed to develop diabetes. Oats, oat bran, psyllium, flax, lentils, legumes, apples, pears, and other fruits are high in soluble fiber. A combination of legumes and whole grains is a prudent low-fat meat alternative.

-Eat whole grain foods. Several studies have found that diets high in whole grain foods such as whole wheat bread and whole grain cereals reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. These foods contain a variety of important vitamins and minerals, as well as phytochemicals with antioxidant properties.

-Choose healthy fats and limit intake. The omega-6 polyunsaturated fats—found in safflower, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, and soybean oils—reduce cholesterol levels when they replace saturated fats in the diet. Monounsaturated fats, found in olive and canola oils, tend to lower total and LDL cholesterol levels when they replace saturated fats in the diet. Soft margarines containing plant sterols also help lower cholesterol when consumed as part of a heart-healthy diet. For most people, a diet with less than 20 to 30% of its calories coming from these fats is recommended to help lower cholesterol.

-Eat soy. Research has shown that adding soy protein to a low-fat diet lowers the risk for heart disease. Soy contains plant compounds called isoflavones that appear to benefit the heart, which help lower cholesterol levels. Soy protein can be found in tofu and soy beverages.

-Talk to your doctor about supplements. Research on whether supplements help prevent heart disease has been inconclusive. Seek most nutrients from foods, and consult a professional before taking any new supplements, particularly vitamin A, fish oil, and iron supplements.

-Eat a small handful of nuts daily. Nuts and seeds are rich sources of fiber, vitamin E, essential fatty acids, and minerals—all linked to heart health.

-Try going vegetarian. Research has shown that a healthy low-fat vegetarian diet rich in fruits, vegetables, soy and whole grains such as oats and barley may be as effective as “statin” drugs in lowering cholesterol.

-Limit alcohol intake. A glass of red wine or beer may be “heart healthy,” but excessive amounts of alcohol over time may lead to increased blood pressure, obesity, or other health problems.

Beyond the Diet

For those who are not predisposed to cardiovascular disease, these measures can dramatically decrease the risk:

-Don’t smoke. Smoking, or being exposed to secondhand cigarette smoke, harms blood cells, the structure and function of blood vessels, and the structure of the heart.

-Exercise regularly. Experts recommend getting at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week. This also helps maintain a healthy body weight.

-Get regular checkups. A yearly visit to the doctor’s office is all it takes to get your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked. A diabetes screening can also help, especially if you have a family history of diabetes or are overweight.
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