Tag Archives: heart health


Hypertension, or high blood pressure, often occurs with no symptoms. Even when blood pressure is extremely elevated, the first indicator is often a high reading on a blood pressure test at a medical checkup—or worse. Sometimes, patients who have had hypertension for a long time will experience headaches, nosebleeds, and dizzy spells, but in many cases high blood pressure only makes itself known through heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure, or diabetes and prediabetes, coronary and other health problems caused by chronically high blood pressure.

In fact, chronic primary hypertension—not caused by an underlying condition such as kidney disease, thyroid disease, or diabetes—can be fatal if ignored. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high blood pressure deaths have noticeably risen over the past ten years, and 60 percent of those deaths happen to people younger than 75.

The causes of high blood pressure are varied, and it’s not clear exactly how it happens. Risk factors include being middle-aged or older, being African-American, smoking, stress, not getting enough potassium or other essential nutrients, and a sedentary lifestyle. People with a family history of hypertension are especially at risk. That suggests that susceptibility to high blood pressure is at least partly hereditary.

One cause researchers say contributes to high blood pressure is lack of vitamin D. This vitamin is interesting because, while it can be gotten from food, is also found in sunlight. A study last month found evidence that vitamin D deficiency can cause high blood pressure in people. The patient’s personality is also a factor. Happy thoughts can actually lower the risk of a heart attack and other heart-related complications. Indeed, administering supplemental vitamin D actually helps lower blood pressure. Other ways to get blood pressure down include maintaining a healthy body weight, getting plenty of exercise through such activities as brisk walking, drinking in moderation if at all, and eating a diet low in salt but with plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Surgery For Weight Loss

Bariatic surgery is an often controversial procedure to help people lose weight. It is often derided as an "easy way out," but the fact is weight loss is difficult, the human body is deigned so that weight is much more easily gained than lost, and most diets usually don’t work for most people. If anything, patients who have weight loss surgery need to put more effort and thought into how and what they eat than dieters typically, do. The various kinds of bariatric surgery reduce stomach capacity in various ways, which make these restrictions easier, but also make them mandatory.

On of the most common types of weight loss surgery is called Roux-en-Y. The intestine is rerouted in a Y shape around most of the stomach and attached to a small pouch. This limits patients to the capacity of that pouch. Other types of surgery used miniaturized instruments inserted through a small incision to place an adjustable band around the stomach, making it smaller that way.

Regardless of the technique used, the health benefits are many. People with type 2 diabetes, for example, normally need insulin and medications the rest of their lives. However, obese people with type 2 diabetes—of which obesity is a major cause—show marked improvement, and in a study some were able to stop this maintenance treatment or diabetes entirely. Other studies found that obese people who underwent bariatric surgery successfully halved their heart attack risk. People on whom the weight loss operation had been performed had a 40 percent lower mortality rate and 50 percent fewer heart attacks than obese people who had not had surgery.

All this however, is not without a price. People who receive the surgery still need to follow a restrictive diet. In fact, it becomes more important, as failing to stick to the diet can result in not merely failing to lose weight, but in medical complications. Furthermore, the restrictive diet can mean nutritional deficiencies if people don’t carefully plan meals and take necessary supplements. There are also some signs that at least some procedures can make bones more brittle. While many patients find that the benefits more than compensate for the risks, it is still important for someone considering surgery for obesity to discuss both with a health care provider.

Genes And High Blood Pressure

Someone’s blood pressure can be very high, and they might never know it. That’s because even the initial symptoms of chronic hypertension—headaches, nosebleeds, and dizzy spells—rarely appear until a lot of damage has been done, if at all. Often, the first indicator of elevated blood pressure is a sign of the coronary and other health problems that it leads to, such as heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure, or diabetes or precursors to diabetes.

High blood pressure tends to develop gradually and silently over the course of decades, but doctors aren’t clear as to why. Risk factors include being middle-aged or older, being African-American, smoking, stress, a diet too low in potassium or vitamin D, and a sedentary lifestyle. People are also at articular risk for chronic hypertension if the have a family history of the condition, pointing to a genetic link. A number of genes have been identified as having some influence in cases of hereditary high blood pressure, including 11 in a study published last week.

"Discovering these new genetic variants provides vital insight into how the body regulates blood pressure," said Patricia Munroe, a researcher, in a statement. "With further research, we are hopeful it could lead to the development of new treatments for treating blood pressure and heart disease—a leading cause of death worldwide."

Someone with a genetic predisposition to high blood pressure isn’t doomed. There are risk factors a person can do directly. High blood pressure prevention means maintaining a healthy body weight, keeping up on regular physical activity such as brisk walking, being judicious abut drinking, and eating a diet low in salt but with plenty of fruits and vegetables. Trading a high-stress lifestyle for a calmer one may not always be possible or practical, but there are things, such as mindfulness meditation, that can reduce stress enough to lower hypertension risk.

Stress can also have an indirect effect, leading people who have been prescribed blood pressure medications to briefly, but dangerously, forgo them. Medications for high blood pressure include beta blockers and other drugs that relax the blood vessels, allowing the heart to work normally.

Tips For A Healthy Heart

Heart disease is deadly, but heart health can be easy. An estimated 80 percent of cardiac deaths are preventable—nearly 650,000 people. A few simple lifestyle changes can set you on the road to a strong cardiovascular system. Here are some tips to keep your ticker in top form:

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables and is low in saturated and trans fats.
  • As best you can, get vitamins and minerals from foods rather than supplements.
  • Avoid fad diets. Though maintaining a healthy weight is good for your heart, most complicated or gimmicky weight loss programs fall down on the "maintaining" part. A cycle of losing weight and gaining it back is worse for your heart that simply being overweight.
  • Walking the dog is a great chance to get some walking in yourself.
  • Chose the stairs rather than the elevator if you’re only going a floor or two—or three if you’re up for it.
  • If you use mass transit, try to get off a stop or two early. If you drive, look for a parking space in the far side of the lot, or park a block or two away if you’re parking on the street
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Destress as best you can. Try yoga, meditation, mindfulness, or other stress-relieving techniques.
  • Get enough sleep, six to eight hours every night.

Particularly if you’re overweight, you’re over 60, you have a family history of heart disease, or you have some other risk factor, talk to your doctor about including heart disease screening in your regular check-up. That means a look at your blood pressure and your cholesterol levels. This will help you and your doctor assess your risk and determine a specific strategy you can follow to lengthen your life.

Stroke Prevention And Recovery

Nearly 800,000 Americans get stroke every year. Stroke happens when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted; if the interruption lasts more than a few seconds it can cause permanent damage to brain functions, or even death—stroke is the fourth most common cause of death in the United States. The major symptoms are drooping on one side of the face (most obvious if the person is trying to smile), slurred speech, and difficulty raising their arms. Someone having a stroke may also have seizures, fainting, or blurred vision.

When someone is having a stroke, treatment must be started immediately, which means prevention is a much more useful strategy for addressing stroke danger than hoping it can be treated in time after the fact. State of mind and mental health have a lot to do with stroke risk. In one study, high-anxiety people were found to be a third more likely to suffer stroke than people with more normal anxiety levels. Anxiety is associated with high blood pressure, and bringing down blood pressure is a pillar of stroke prevention. Smokers who quit, for example, are less likely to suffer stroke because they are less likely to have chronic hypertension. Maintaining a healthy diet, with lots of fruits and vegetables and avoiding saturated fats, can also lower stroke risk.

Another way people can get their blood pressure under control is sunlight. In one study, people who live in sunny areas were found to have a lower stroke risk than people in darker parts of the world. The study used models developed by NASA to determine the sunniest places to lie, considering latitude and longitude, air quality, cloudiness, and other factors. More recent research has confirmed the connection, showing that vitamin D is so important to healthy blood pressure levels that for people with severe chronic hypertension, the increased risk of skin cancer from more UV exposure may be more than offset by the beneficial blood pressure effects.

Research is also spurring advances in stroke recovery. Core stabilization exercises are used by stroke patients to help them relearn how to walk and move independently. Scientists found that real-time video feedback, which allows these patients to monitor their own movements as they are making them, helps facilitate this relearning process. In a different study, doctors used motion capture technology, used for virtual costume computer effects in movies, to assess patients’ movement function, in order to focus treatment.

Go Red For Women

One in four American women will die of heart disease—more than every form of cancer combined. It is the number one cause of death for women in this country, and actually kills more women than men. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that heart disease looks different in women and men, and so they miss the signs because they don’t know what to look for. It is estimated, in fact, that 42 million women have undiagnosed heart disease. Women who get heart attacks don’t have the obvious signs men do.

The symptoms of heart attack in women are more subtle. Women experience neck or shoulder ache, abdominal pain, shortness of breath, throat pain, nausea, lightheadedness, dizziness and fatigue, and sweating. One reason for the difference is that when women have coronary blockage, it isn’t only the main arteries that are blocked, the smaller blood vessels in the chest are also affected.

The risk factors for heart disease are mostly the same in women as in men—though menopause and hormonal birth control are risk factors as well. In addition, the degree to which these things affect women and men can be different. Diabetes, for example, is more strongly linked to heart disease in women. The biggest controllable risk factor for heart disease in women is smoking. Smoking narrows the blood vessels, making them more prone to blockage, particularly the smaller ones that are more affected in women. The danger of smoking is also exacerbated by hormonal birth control; the hormones make the effects of smoking worse. Similarly, while stress makes everyone more prone to heart ailments, this is particularly the case for women.

To raise awareness of the special concerns women have for heart health, today is the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women Day. Today is the day to start to take steps to lower your risk of heart disease death. That means quitting smoking. It means making the effort to get enough exercise, about 30 to 60 minutes most days. It means a heart-healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats. It means maintaining a healthy weight. It means talking to your doctor about an aspirin regimen that can help prevent arterial plaque from building up. It’s never too early, and you’re never too young, to start protecting your heart.

Mechanisms Of Cholesterol

A protein called kinesin has an unusual property: it walks within cells, along structures called microtubules, carrying material from the center of the cell to the edges. This means that the kinesin protein plays an important role in cell division, and therefore in growth and healing. Kinesin is also part of the process by which the areas of the brain communicate with each other and with the nerves and muscles in the body.

Now researchers have found another important function kinesin performs in the body. Kinesin is involved in regulating cholesterol levels, especially the amount of "bad" LDL cholesterol. The protein plays a key role in the mechanism by which pockets in the liver draw cholesterol out of the blood, engulfing it, a process called endocytosis. The walking protein does not walk in this role; instead, it simply provides structural support to the liver cells.

The form of cholesterol this process operates on, referred to as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, is termed "bad" in contrast to its high-density counterpart. Excessive LDL is associated with cardiovascular disease. It causes wax-like plaque to build up within the arteries, making them narrower and more rigid. When this happens, less blood can go through the blood vessel and blood pressure increases. By contrast, HDL—which even in healthy people is less than half as common as LDL—helps clean out this plaque. That means that while it’s dangerous to have high levels of LDL, it’s also dangerous for HDL levels to be too low.

Except when it goes wrong. Recent studies have given scientists insight into how HDL can turn on people, promoting rather than preventing disease. In patients who already have clogged arteries, HDL can become dysfunctional, losing its ability to clean the arteries and raising the risk of heart disease. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to reducing bad cholesterol. That doesn’t mean avoiding foods high in cholesterol, but it does mean avoiding foods high in saturated fat, which is what raises cholesterol levels. The polyunsaturated fats in foods such as walnuts an almonds actually help to reduce LDL levels, and omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil can likewise be beneficial. High-fiber foods, too, such as oatmeal, can help get bad cholesterol down.

Sleep And Your Heart

Sleep apnea, when a sleeping person briefly stops breathing during the night, is a hidden condition. The primary symptom happens while patients are sleeping; that means it can do its damage surreptitiously, right under a sufferer’s nose, and not be recognized for years, if ever. The condition isn’t directly detectable at an ordinary check-up. There’s no blood test for it. In fact, more than three-quarters of the estimated 40 million people in the United States with sleep apnea are undiagnosed. The only way to diagnose sleep apnea is, first, to be looking for it specifically, and then usually to do a sleep study, in which the person suspected of having apnea is watched an monitored during sleep.

Meanwhile, the effects of the disease are difficult to miss, even if they aren’t recognized as symptoms. Because people wake up when apnea causes them to stop breathing, their sleep is disjointed, fragmented, and not restful. That means they go through the day tired and can be unfocused. The blockage that stops breathing in apnea can sometimes be apparent as loud, heavy snoring that may wake others up. Getting a proper diagnosis is important, because left untreated, apnea can lead to erectile dysfunction, complications with surgery, and liver problems.

Sleep apnea also leads to hypertension and raises the risk of stroke. That’s because the fluctuations in oxygen level caused by sleep apnea—down when the patient stops breathing, then back to normal when breathing resumes, every few minutes all night long—induces the heart to pump harder to compensate, meaning blood pressure rises and the risk of stroke goes up. In fact, the oxygen issues strain the entire cardiovascular system, leading to a higher risk of heart disease. Heart disease can exacerbate the dangers of apnea, because the incidents of hypoxia can trigger fatal cardiac events.

Sleep apnea patients are generally advised to lose weight, if they can, since being overweight or obese is a risk factor for apnea. Quitting smoking also helps, as does avoiding alcohol and sedatives that may cause the throat muscles to relax excessively. Beyond that, there isn’t much in the way of medication, but a continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP, machine can be used to pump in air to keep your breathing passages open. CPAP can be cumbersome, however; a recently developed implantable device is being tested as a replacement.

Honey, I’m Healthy

Honey is an ancient food, in more ways than one. Honey was used in prehistoric times—cave paintings indicate that human beings were already using honey in their diets 8,000 years ago, and honey residue has been found on vessels in the Caucasus that date back five millennia. In addition, honey is one of a very small number of foods that, properly stored, does not spoil. Those ancient honey deposits are just as good as honey harvested last week.

Perhaps it is this longevity that inspired physicians of antiquity to look to honey to heal and preserve people. Honey was used to dress wounds and in medical compounds, and the ancient Greeks consumed it in an effort to live longer. In fact, many religious traditions use honey to represent health, long life, and the pursuit of the eternal.

Modern science has actually confirmed some of this ancient knowledge, and added more discoveries to the list. Honey has antibacterial and anti-fungal properties, meaning its use in wound dressing actually has sound science behind it. This same property also means honey is good against ulcers and other gastrointestinal disorders caused by bacteria. On the other hand, honey is also a good choice to help maintain and replenish the good gut bacteria that are needed for proper digestion. In addition to that, honey is a good source of antioxidants, meaning that it can help prevent heart disease. Honey’s precise mix of sweeteners helps regulate blood sugar, and makes it the best choice for athletes in training. Possibly one of honey’s best known benefits is in fighting cold symptoms and easing sore throats, especially in hot tea.

It’s not all good news, however. Honey is hypoallergenic, meaning that honey allergy, though possible, is extremely rare. However, there is a slight chance that honey will carry botulism spores. Adults generally shrug these off—those good gut bacteria neutralize the spores so they don’t do any harm—but in infants, these gut bacteria are still developing, meaning honey and products containing honey can be dangerous to infants under 12 months.

Health Benefts Of Fried Foods

There are dozens of diets with different and often contradictory advice for how to lose pounds and maintain a healthy weight, but there’s one thing on which they almost all agree: fried foods are bad for your health. Recent research, however, suggests it might not be that simple. In one study, subjects with the most fried food consumption had about the same risk of coronary heard disease and a lower mortality rate than those with the least.

Of course, that isn’t as simple as it sounds either. The type of oil used, for example, makes a big difference in the outcome. The people in that study were eating food fried generally in sunflower oil or olive oil, and another study found that food fried in extra-virgin olive oil can lower insulin levels. Other oils and fats—the ones more commonly used at all but the highest-end restaurants—are less healthy. Fried foods may not cause heart disease, but they are high in calories. Reusing cooking oil can also change it from neutral or beneficial to a danger. Reheating sunflower oil after it has been used once, for example, releases compounds called aldehydes, which can cause cancer in high amounts. One reuse is generally safe, but the risk increases after that.

Nonetheless, there is some evidence that some of the reputation of fried foods is guilt by association, in which a diet high in fried foods also tends to include a lot of fast-food meals, a high salt intake, a lot of processed foods, and other unhealthy choices. Fried foods aren’t harmful in moderation—and nearly anything eaten immoderately is bad for you—but they’re often served as part of meals that are. The study that found no harm was done in Spain, and the standard Mediterranean diet is famously heart-healthy; it may well be that the benefits of the overall diet compensated for the health problems caused or exacerbated by frying.

Moreover, the foods people choose to fry are often questionable no matter how they’re prepared. Deep-fried cola, a dessert invented at the Texas state fair, is probably bad for your health, but cola in any form is bad for your health. Frying vegetables, on the other hand, doesn’t rob them of nutritional value, and while the results may not be better for you than vegetables cooked by other methods, it’s an improvement over deep-fried junk food.