Heart disease is just a thing old dudes worry about... right? Sorry, pal. It's actually everywhere. Statistically, you know someone with cardiovascular disease (even if you don't know they have it). It's also likely you're very aware of someone in your family is struggling with heart health. It may sound small like, meh... he has high cholesterol, or it may be as serious as a heart attack. "But... I can basically ignore it until I'm old, right?" DOUBLE sorry, pal. Heart disease, strokes, heart attacks, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, etc. don't just magically appear one day. The universe doesn't pick a day and declare "TODAY is the day you'll start eating dinner at 4:30 pm, watching 'stories' on the TV, and start thinking about your heart health." That fun diagnosis all the "old" people receive has been in the works for YEARS by the time a doctor actually finds it. Let me explain why and how to prevent heart issues now, and the REAL risk factors you should be looking for (hint: your doctor might be a liiiiittle out of touch).
Ideally, we'd all be on board with the "prevention" mindset, 100% of every day. I'm in that mindset when I can be (my kid gets fruit in fancy shapes instead of a sugar-laden birthday cake) but sometimes I just... can't (i.e. I'm not even the one to put the fruit into fancy shapes, and the amount goldfish crackers in the back seat of my car resembles the number of fish in the actual ocean). But, whenever possible I like to put the best of intentions and effort into healthy living before disaster or disease strikes.
Or.. you could do the OPPOSITE. You could wait until that “holy shit”-revolution-spurring-terrifying moment kicks your health into gear. Fear becomes your motive when you realize: “my dad just had a heart attack”, “my brother passed out while mowing the lawn, and has to see a specialist for months”, “my aunt had a stroke while riding her bike (ironic if it was this ride)." I'm begging you, don't wait until something serious hits close to home before you start asking about prevention. Because guess what? You have SO much control over your health right. now.
You might think, "eh, that all sounds fine to me..." but even average people like us are being told that our bad cholesterol is rising, our good cholesterol is falling, and blood sugar levels are increasing, along with our blood pressure.
Part of this is on you (ahem, us), but part of this is on your doctor. The traditional medical community might give you a "plan" that includes the following:
Cool. NOT super helpful.
It's not that water, sleep, and weight loss aren't good suggestions, it's just that if you aren't doing them now, a 5 second suggestion from your doctor probably isn't going to revolutionize your life. Remember-- time, work, nachos, and life happen all the time, causing the work-life-health balance to become….unbalanced.
What I want to encourage is a more accurate way of assessing your risk of having a stroke or heart attack. Most doctors focus on weight, blood pressure, and a blood lipid panel to asses your heart health however, these are really bad at predicting risk for cardiovascular disease. Did you know over 50% of men and women showing up the emergency room with a CONFIRMED stroke or heart attack have had normal blood pressure, and normal cholesterol their entire life?
But wait… that means, the other 50% have been diagnosed, are being treated, AND ARE STILL HAVING A STROKE OR HEART ATTACK. What gives?
Let me repeat... half the people with stroke/heart attack have had normal blood pressure, and normal lab results and normal weight? They weren't assessed for actual risk.
The top three risks I like to focus on with my patients are the three biggest insults to the heart and arteries.
Honestly, it’s a combination of variables that impact our ability to have a healthy heart. These 3 risk factors are causing weak blood vessels and weak hearts. The good news is they can be evaluated if your doctor is open to a different approach to lab testing. Instead of going straight to the medication when your cholesterol panel looks ugly, your doctor could dig a little further and evaluate your risk. To save those 50% of people with normal lab test results, let's dig a little further and evaluate risk for them too. That way we can truly know when to make lifestyle modification instead of waiting until it's too late. It'll make more sense after you read this:
Once a person is medicated for cholesterol, a harsh reality is covered up:
Again, if your doctor tested LDL-C (probably) instead of LDL-P (unlikely) you might not be in the clear with "normal" results.
In a few years, many of those patients will also have to add a blood sugar medication, hormone help (testosterone, estrogen, etc.) and more, because they're not only losing nutrients from the first medication, but they don't have enough cholesterol in their body to produce hormones that regulate blood sugar. It’s a vicious cascade.
1. Request that your doctor order an LDL-P test rather than LDL-C, and if they give you a puzzled look... go find a doctor who knows how to read LDL-P test results.
2. Inflammation and oxidative stress can be evaluated by testing your levels of CRP (C-reactive protein) and Homocysteine. Another option may be for your doctor to run a test called an ESR especially if he or she suspects an autoimmune disorder. Bonus: If your doctor knows functional medicine, they'll be able to order this specific oxidative stress test.
3. Immune system strength can be tested by having even a basic test like a CBC (any doctor runs these all the time). Other options would be a "complement assay". One clue to a weak immune system, even if you aren't testing for it? -- You catch nearly every cold, cough, flu that goes around.
Lifestyle. It's not the easy answer, but it's the most effective. The following changes in lifestyle help reduce ALL bad cholesterol, inflammation, oxidative stress, and immune system overload by 80%!
Sometimes you just want the short and sweet "what do I need to take now"... here it is:
Don't wait until it's too late. Your 20's, 30's, and 40's are the time to take care of yourself before you get slapped with a diagnosis in your 50's. If you're already in your 50's, work smarter not harder by finding a practitioner that's up to date with accurate and effective lab testing, and treatment.
Disclaimer: this post does not take the place of a visit with your health care provider, and these statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.