Every year, in the United States, 610,000 people die from the leading killer of Americans — heart disease. Fortunately, heart disease is largely preventable through diet and lifestyle changes. Cardiovascular health is burdened by modifiable risk factors: The Western diet, which is loaded with refined foods and processed carbs, and a sedentary lifestyle.

Most people are the picture of health until one day after years of getting a clean bill of health they experience stabbing pain in their chest or back. A heart attack is a sign that you’ve been living with heart disease but didn’t know it. Similar to cancer, however, heart disease is an insidious medical condition that develops over years. In fact, autopsy studies show that children as young as three years old have pathological signs of heart disease. So although the condition of stiffened, blocked arteries (atherosclerosis) are quite common in older adults, heart disease lays down the seeds of destructive proinflammatory conditions very early in our lives.

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

For a very long time, clinicians believed that atherosclerosis was a normal part of aging. Nothing could be further from the truth. Atherosclerosis is a pathological condition that develops due to poor diet and a lack of physical activity. Because of an unbalanced diet, people end up with conditions such as diabetes and obesity — two huge contributors to the development of atherosclerosis. Smoking also contributes to the development of atherosclerosis.

Basically, atherosclerosis begins when our blood vessels are damaged. The tubular structure of blood vessels consists of three layers of which the endothelium (innermost layer) is assaulted by foods that contain proinflammatory compounds like LDLs (bad cholesterol), triglycerides, and insulin.

As LDLs accumulate in the body, they are also being modified by oxidative reactions to become “modified LDLs” that cause further damage to the endothelium. This inflammatory condition changes the endothelial layer from its natural state (a state that promotes blood and its contents to flow freely) to a pro-inflammatory state (a state that triggers the development of cells to clump and narrow the blood vessel passage). This situation creates an aggregation of cells called foam cells (fatty white blood cells stuck to endothelial cells) — the hallmark sign of early atherosclerosis. Various other changes will continue to occur over time, and these changes will result in the partial or total blockage of blood vessels. If the total blockage forms in a coronary blood vessel, this is called a heart attack; if the block is in a brain artery, stroke.

Improving Heart Health — One Step at a Time

In a recent study published in The Lancet, hand-grip strength was shown to be a sign for heart disease risk. Researchers used a device called the Jamar dynamometer to assess grip strength of 140,000 study participants in over 17 countries. The researchers found that, even when they accounted for confounding factors like age, smoking, and physical activity, the faster the decline in muscle strength was associated with a greater risk for heart attack and stroke and early death.

In describing the correlation of grip strength to heart health, the lead researcher, Dr. Darryl Leong, says, “We think it fits the measure of someone’s frailty, and frailty can be thought of as your ability to withstand having a disease.”

In The Gene Therapy Plan, I provide healthful tips that you can implement to foster heart healthy practices. By engaging in physical activity that you enjoy, you not only build up stamina, curb weight gain, increase muscle strength, but also make exercising a lifelong practice. The key is to find activities that you like and already do and bring it up a notch. If you enjoy walking, find new ways to increase the time you walk. For instance, on a grocery run, park your car farther away from the entrance and walk. When you’re at work, walk for a few minutes during your lunch hour, better still find a partner at work and walk together. Making activities fun adds fulfillment, so that you aren’t focused on the wrong things like calorie counting.

Also, build up an even better defense against heart disease by watching the kinds of foods you eat. In my Genechanger video series, I discuss foods that boost heart health like chia seeds, which you can easily add to juices, smoothies, and salads. So prevent heart disease from intruding on your health by changing inflammatory gene expression through diet and exercise. That way, you get rid of artery-clogging health hazards for good!

Photo Credit:
Yurii Andreichyn
CDC, NCHS. Underlying Cause of Death 1999-2013 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released 2015. Data are from the Multiple Cause of Death Files, 1999-2013, as compiled from data provided by the 57 vital statistics jurisdictions through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program. Accessed May 16, 2015.
Prognostic value of grip strength: findings from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study, Darryl Leong, et al., The Lancet, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(14)62000-6, published online 14 May 2015.