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Ask a researcher: How do you reduce your heart disease and stroke risk?

Lankenau Medical Center April 29, 2019 Medical Research

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States. Every year, about 600,000 people die of heart-related problems—that’s one in every four deaths, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moreover, several types of heart disease are risk factors for stroke. We asked long-time cardiovascular research Robert Cox, PhD, professor at the Lankenau Institute for Medical Research, part of Main Line Health, what actions he has taken to ward off coronary disease.

What lifestyle habits have you adopted to help you reduce your chances of developing heart disease?

I exercise at least three times per week, primarily aerobic exercise that’s good for my heart. And while at work, I prefer to take the steps rather than the elevator whenever possible so that I get additional, short bursts of exercise throughout my day. These actions not only strengthen my heart, but also help to keep my weight down, which in turn reduces my risk for heart disease. Such actions also stimulate the growth of new small coronary arteries, which mitigates any effects of coronary disease.

Have you made any dietary changes to improve heart health?

Yes, many. My wife and I minimize the amount of processed foods we eat, as well as foods that include preservatives and high fructose corn syrup. The latter is a common sweetener added to sodas and fruit-flavored drinks. Studies have shown it can contribute to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and high triglyceride levels. All of those boost the risk for heart disease.

Additionally, we try to avoid eating at fast food restaurants or eating salty snacks, and we do not add salt to food. Sodium is essential for life, as it controls your body’s fluid balance, helps conduct nerve impulses and affects muscle function. But too much extra sodium in the bloodstream leads to water retention by the kidneys, which increases total body water content, thus leading to increases in blood pressure, especially in the veins. That is the leading cause of heart failure.

We also avoid eating too much butter and other saturated fats and restrict our red meat intake to just once per week. Studies show that saturated fats increase cholesterol and triglyceride levels that, in turn, increase risk for coronary artery disease. In recent years, we also have cut way back on refined sugar and flour. We’ve even taken to making our own healthy salad dressings and gravies from scratch so we can better control the ingredients and make them healthier options than most store-bought brands.

So we see what you avoid eating, but what do you include in your heart-healthy diet?

We eat fish twice a week and meatless meals at least twice a week. Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (that is, unsaturated fats) reduce inflammation throughout the body. Unchecked inflammation can damage blood vessels and lead to heart disease and stroke. Omega-3 fatty acids decrease triglycerides, lower blood pressure and reduce blood clotting—all of which are good for the heart and can prevent stroke. Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish such as salmon, lake trout, mackerel, herring, sardines and tuna.

We also have a high daily intake of fruits and vegetables, and we buy fresh local produce weekly, especially during the growing season. Locally grown produce is often picked later and therefore is likely to contain more nutrients than produce picked earlier in the season and shipped long distances to market.

Lastly, I take a daily multivitamin especially designed for older adults like me to help ensure I’m getting absolutely all the nutrients I need.

Do you take any other actions for cardiac health?

We all know that stress can lead to heart problems. To help relieve the inevitable stress I encounter at work, I always take all my vacation time, and I make a purposeful effort to make those vacations stress and hassle-free. I also never miss my annual wellness checkup with my primary care provider, and I get preventive dental checkups twice per year.

Staying on top of my health has helped me ward off conditions that could lead to serious illness and has kept me “in the game,” so to speak, for many years.

Robert Cox, PhD, is a professor at LIMR. His research focuses on how ion channels regulate the function of the heart and blood vessels in health and disease at both the functional and molecular level. Learn more about Dr. Cox's research.