Doctors Want You to Know This About Heart Disease — Eat This Not That

A healthy heart is one way to live a long quality life, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “About 697,000 people in the United States died from heart disease in 2020—that’s 1 in every 5 deaths.” Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, but many cases are preventable. 

“Ninety percent of the nearly 18 million heart disease cases worldwide could be prevented by people adopting a healthier diet, doing regular exercise, and not smoking,” Cleveland Clinic states. “Heart disease is 90 percent treatable – everyone can prevent heart disease anywhere in the world, especially by eating foods that are low in salt and cholesterol, exercising regularly, and not smoking,” said Leslie Cho, M.D., Section Head for Preventive Cardiology and Cardiac Rehabilitation at Cleveland Clinic. “Even if a person has a family history of heart disease, we can still prevent and treat heart disease thanks to incredible advances in medicine.”

There’s a lot to know about heart disease and learning the symptoms, early warning signs and modifiable risk factors can be lifesaving. “Cardiovascular disease affects more than 121.5 million adults in the U.S per year but can largely be prevented by lifestyle choices,” Bernadette Boden-Albala, MPH, DrPH, Director and Founding Dean, University of California, Irvine Program in Public Health  tells us. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with experts who share what to know about heart disease and how to help avoid it. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.


Dr. Chukumerije MD, FACC, RPVI and Philips Sonicare Oral Systemic Health Advisory Board Member explains, “People end up developing certain habits like poor oral hygiene, limitless alcohol consumption, poor sleep habits, mindless eating and overindulging that can play a key role in developing future heart problems. People might not realize they are contributing to these poor habits. They can put an unhealthy strain on the heart, causing it to work harder to successfully deliver oxygen and nutrients to organs, negatively affecting the entire body.

Dr. Boden-Albala adds, “In some cases, heart disease may be “silent” and not diagnosed until major symptoms or emergencies like heart attack, arrhythmia and heart failure occur. If people are not participating in annual physicals they may not realize they have high blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides that are signs of heart disease.”

bad heartbeat

Oftentimes there are very subtle signs of heart disease that people aren’t aware of and Dr. Boden-Albala says not to ignore them. She shares, “Hidden signs of heart disease include bad breath, feeling fatigue for no reason, experiencing erectile dysfunction and spotting fatty growths. All the signs should not be ignored and need to be discussed with your healthcare provider. “

Dr. Chukumerije says, “Chest discomfort is one of the most common signs of heart danger. Symptoms like pain, tightness or pressure in your chest lasting for an extended period of time can be signs of coronary artery disease or a heart attack. Similarly, palpitations (irregular heartbeats) may be a sign of an underlying arrhythmia. Some people might not notice these symptoms and aren’t diagnosed with heart disease until they have a heart attack or stroke, which is why regular health checkups are essential for your heart and overall health.”

Woman touching her heart while sitting at the table in her big office.

Dr. Chukumerije explains, “Knowing and understanding your medical history is extremely important. Learning the risks of your hereditary health can help you understand where your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and triglycerides levels need to be and help you take the necessary steps to maintain those levels, which is crucial for optimal heart health. Another important thing to know is that although risk factors for heart disease may be hereditary, a more common cause of heart disease is a bad lifestyle and poor health habits.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states, “Most people have a family health history of at least one chronic disease, such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. If you have a close family member with a chronic disease, you may be more likely to develop that disease yourself, especially if more than one close relative has (or had) the disease or a family member got the disease at a younger age than usual. Collect your family health history information before visiting the doctor, and take it with you. Even if you don’t know all of your family health history information, share what you do know. Family health history information, even if incomplete, can help your doctor decide which screening tests you need and when those tests should start.

You can’t change your genes, but you can change unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, not exercising or being active, and poor eating habits. If you have a family health history of disease, you may have the most to gain from lifestyle changes and screening tests. In many cases, healthy habits can reduce your risk for diseases that run in your family. Screening tests, such as blood sugar testing, mammograms, and colorectal cancer screening, help find early signs of disease. Finding disease early can often mean better health in the long run.”

unhappy woman sits on couch, hand on forehead

According to Dr. Chukumerije, “Men and women have the same risk factors for heart disease, including obesity, smoking, diabetes, family history and high blood pressure, but research from John Hopkins shows that women have their own unique heart disease risk factors. These factors include high testosterone levels prior to menopause, increasing hypertension during menopause, lower estrogen levels after menopause, and stress and depression (which are more common among women).”

Dr. Boden-Albala says, “Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States where 1 in every 5 females die from heart disease. Women tend to develop heart disease later in life than men because the difference has been attributed to the loss of estrogen during the menopausal transition.”

smiling woman brushing teeth

Dr. Chukumerije says the following can help reduce the risk of heart disease. 

“Brush Better, Feel Better: Maintaining optimal oral health by brushing your teeth with a power toothbrush is recommended two minutes a day, twice a day. By doing so, you can remove up to 5X more plaque than a manual toothbrush, minimizing the risk of oral bacteria passing on to the bloodstream, thereby reducing the risk of heart issues.

Take a Moment to Breath: Stress can increase inflammation in your body, which is directly related to high blood pressure and low levels of good HDL cholesterol, per research from John Hopkins. Set time aside for several meditation moments throughout the day, allowing for 1-3 minutes of deep breathing to help lower your heart rate during stressful moments at work or home.

Heart Healthy Diet: Given the link between a poor diet and the development of cardiovascular risk factors including diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and high blood pressure, it’s imperative to maintain a heart-healthy diet. This includes choosing foods that are rich in whole grains, low-fat protein and a lot of fruits and vegetables. By being conscious of the foods you eat, it will help facilitate a healthy lifestyle.”

Dr. Boden-Albala adds, “There are many modifiable risk factors people can change to lower the risk of heart disease like making healthy food choices, limiting alcohol consumption, and checking blood pressure regularly. Quit smoking immediately and help support the cessation of smoking in your family networks. I understand it is difficult to quit but it is worth your life. Physical activity is a wonderful way to decrease risk like walking daily, swimming or dancing are some ways to reduce risk.  Ultimately, work to reduce stress in your life. Stress can lead to other unhealthy behaviors and may also contribute alone to increased risk of heart attack and stroke.”

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