Cholesterol Q&A: Key Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Oregon Clinic

What are common risk factors for heart disease?

Heart disease is the number one cause of death and suffering in the U.S. Traditionally accepted risk factors are age, family history of heart disease, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Some factors, like age and family history, are out of one’s control. But other risk factors can be managed through lifestyle choices, especially changes in diet and increased physical activity. “Although medications are proven to help address common risk factors, commitment to daily healthy living until it becomes a habit is a prerequisite for heart disease prevention and management,” says Dr. Sandeep Garg, The Oregon Clinic Cardiology.

What is the connection between high cholesterol and heart disease?

Cholesterol buildup and heart disease start with repeated insults to the endothelium (inner lining of the vessels) over several years. Daily lifestyle choices such as smoking and poor diet lead to repeated damage to the endothelium. This causes local inflammation and cholesterol deposition, which then causes narrowing of the blood vessels, heart attacks and premature death.

How can high cholesterol levels be treated?

The most popular pharmaceutical treatment is statins, a class of drugs that lowers the level of cholesterol in the blood. These medications work very well and have decades of clinical data to support their use in decreasing the risk for heart attack. However, relying only on statins partially protects you from heart attack. “In my opinion, eating exceptionally healthy is even more important than statins if someone wants to significantly lower their heart disease risk,” says Dr. Garg.

What are the primary sources of high cholesterol in a typical diet?

Almost all animal products contain saturated fats and raise cholesterol. A major misconception is that only red meats cause heart disease. The fact is that all animal products, such as butter, cheese, milk, eggs and several lean meats do the same damage. Processed “junk foods” containing hidden hydrogenated oils also contribute to high cholesterol, weight gain, obesity and diabetes. Even most of the common oils used for cooking can raise cholesterol levels.

How can patients avoid these risk factors?

Along with pharmaceutical methods to treat cardiovascular risk factors, many studies have shown that developing healthy diets low in saturated fat and high in fiber can help reduce the risk of heart disease in adults. When you eat an unprocessed plant-based diet, you automatically reduce your calorie consumption, salt consumption, fat consumption and at the same time increase consumption of several macro and micronutrients and fiber. “I believe the best way to prevent heart disease and several other chronic health conditions is to eat a whole food, plant-based diet,” says Dr. Garg. “If you want to lower your risk of heart disease (and many other non-cardiac chronic conditions, including diabetes) you should invest time and effort in long-term strategies like diet, exercise, and commitment to a healthy lifestyle.”