Food for Thought: Heart Disease Still the Biggest Killer

Heart health is back in the news in a big way lately, and the new news is based upon an old topic — eating habits and diet. It comes from the American Heart Association and its announcement of a recent report ranking their top 10 diets based on dietary benefits to “cardiometabolic health.” The results may be surprising for health-minded eaters.

Move over, Mediterranean diet, pescatarian and vegetarian, and especially paleo and ketogenic. Reports CBS News, the DASH-style eating plan (which stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension)” received a perfect score based on its “emphasis on being low in salt, added sugar, alcohol, tropical oils and processed foods (while) being rich in non-starchy vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes.”

Says Christopher D. Gardner, professor of medicine at Stanford University and chair of the writing committee of experts behind the announcement, “The public — and even many health care professionals — may rightfully be confused about heart-healthy eating, and they may feel that they don’t have the time or the training to evaluate the different diets. We hope this statement serves as a tool for clinicians and the public to understand which diets support good cardiometabolic health.”

Whether this announcement will attract more people to healthier eating, or create more debate about dietary plans most folks already find hard to either maintain or follow, remains to be seen.

Lost in the discussion seems to be an important piece of information. Covered in a February health report on NBC’s “Today,” a recent study found that heart attacks in people ages 25 to 44 increased by 30% compared to the expected number over the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, heart attack deaths across all age groups have become more common in the U.S,” reports “Today’s” Maura Hohman. “The age group hit the hardest? People between 25 and 44.”

Also lost in this discussion is an important reminder. Reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease remains the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. According to the CDC, one person dies every 34 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease, with coronary heart disease the most common type. It is reported that, in the United States, someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds.

Beyond dietary considerations, other approaches to prevention and early detection of heart disease are of critical importance if we are to reverse this devastating trend.

Harvard Health reminds us: “When it comes to your health, it is now easy to measure and track all kinds of information. In the comfort of our homes, we can check our weight, blood pressure, number of steps, calories, heart rate, and blood sugar.” What’s new is that researchers are now exploring a new data point as a possible marker indicating heart resiliency. It’s called heart rate variability, the measurement of the variation in time between each heartbeat, controlled by part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system, which automatically regulates our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and digestion among other key tasks.

“Our body handles all kinds of stimuli and life goes on,” says Harvard Health. “However, if we have persistent instigators such as stress, poor sleep, unhealthy diet, dysfunctional relationships, isolation or solitude, and lack of exercise, this balance may be disrupted.” Checking heart rate variability could be a way to track how your nervous system is reacting not only to the environment but also to your emotions, thoughts and feelings, says the report.

While there remain questions about the accuracy, reliability and overall usefulness of tracking HRV, it could potentially become an important tool for monitoring heart health.

As Matthew Solan, executive editor of Harvard Men’s Health Watch, points out in a 2021 report, monitoring your resting heart rate also can be a good way to gauge a person’s current and future health, and you don’t necessarily need to rely on technology to measure it. You can do it in 30 seconds and with just two fingers.

“Measuring your resting heart rate (RHR) — the number of heart beats per minute while you’re at rest — is a real-time snapshot of how your heart muscle is functioning,” he writes. “It’s easy to do. Place your index and middle finger on your wrist just below the thumb, or along either side of your neck, so you can feel your pulse. Use a watch to count the number of beats for 30 seconds and double it to get your beats per minute. Repeat a few times to ensure an accurate reading.”

Solan states, “While a heart rate is considered normal if the rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute, most healthy relaxed adults have a resting heart rate below 90 beats per minute.”

Solan advises people to check their heart rate often, a few times per week and at different times of the day, and to “talk with your doctor if your resting heart rate is regularly on the high end … Keep in mind that the number can be influenced by many factors, including stress and anxiety, circulating hormones, and medications such as certain antidepressants and some blood pressure drugs.”

Says Dr. Jason Wasfy, director of quality and analytics at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center, “In certain cases, a lower resting heart rate can mean a higher degree of physical fitness, which is associated with reduced rates of cardiac events like heart attacks.” He goes on to warn that “a high resting heart rate could be a sign of an increased risk of cardiac risk in some situations, as the more beats your heart has to take eventually takes a toll on its overall function.”

Wasfy adds that another reliable way to lower your resting heart rate is to exercise. “Even small amounts of exercise can make a change,” he says.