Doctor’s Tip: Hardening of the arteries is not a normal part of aging
Hardening of the arteries, otherwise known as atherosclerosis or plaque, is what causes heart attacks — the number one killer in the U.S. It is also the cause of strokes — the number one cause of chronic disability/poor quality of life. In addition, atherosclerosis causes the following: chronic kidney disease, which can lead to dialysis; peripheral vascular disease, which can lead to exertional leg pain and amputations; erectile dysfunction; chronic partial blockages of coronary arteries resulting in chest pain with exertion (angina); blockages of intestinal arteries, resulting in pain after eating and sometimes leading to gangrene of the bowel. Finally, atherosclerosis in arteries in the brain is linked to dementia, including Alzheimer’s. In this age of COVID-19, keep in mind that coronary artery disease is one of the risk factors for severe disease and death.
Fatty streaks in arterial walls — the first sign of atherosclerosis — can occur in newborns of mothers who have high cholesterol levels. By the time American kids who grow up eating the S.A.D. (standard American diet) are teenagers, the majority of them have early stages of atherosclerosis, and many of them have actual plaque in their arteries.
Common risk factors for developing atherosclerosis are: (1) family history of atherosclerosis; (2) the S.A.D., which is high in saturated fat from animal products; and high in processed food, salt, sugar and added oil; (3) sedentary lifestyle; (4) tobacco; (5); sleep apnea; (6) inflammation from diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and chronic dental and gum problems; (7) hypertension (blood pressure greater than 120/80); (8) diabetes and pre-diabetes; (8) lipid abnormalities, including total cholesterol over 150; LDL (bad cholesterol) over 50; triglycerides over 150 (some say less than 70 is ideal); low HDL (good cholesterol); (9) obesity — particularly extra weight around the middle; (10) stress, including anxiety, depression, inadequate sleep, job and relationship issues.
Most Americans, including many physicians, think that atherosclerosis is a normal part of aging, but it isn’t. In plant-based societies such as the Blue Zones (Okinawa, the highlands of Sardinia, an island off the coast of Greece, an area in Costa Rica, and the Seventh Day Adventists in Los Angeles), peoples’ arteries are as healthy at 90 as they are at 9. These populations are plant-based, engage in frequent low-level activity and live relatively stress-free lives.
Pills have been developed for hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes. We are all familiar with statin drugs for high cholesterol. They reduce risk for a heart attack by around 30 percent. However, a lifelong plant-based, unprocessed food diet with no salt, sugar and added oil, along with regular exercise, has been shown to be essentially 100 percent effective in preventing atherosclerosis. If you already have atherosclerosis and adopt a plant-based diet, studies show that you reduce your risk of a heart attack by 98 percent. Even more impressive is that Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn have proven that this diet can reverse coronary atherosclerosis.
Pills cost money, have side effects and are no match for an optimal lifestyle, although some people need both. As Dr. Ornish said at a recent conference, people choose to go plant-based because what they gain is greater than what they give up (and the environment gains as well). Sure, pills are easier than changing your lifestyle, but as Dr. Joel Fuhrman says, you have to earn optimal health.
Greg Feinsinger, M.D. is a retired family physician who has a nonprofit: Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He is available by appointment for free consultations (379-5718).
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“The single greatest predictor of a healthy gut microbiome is the diversity of plants in one’s diet,” Dr. Will Bulsiewicz, MSCI, in “Fiber Fueled.”