Heart disease is the leading killer in the United States, with over 600,000 people dying from it each year. This number is growing steadily.

But isn’t heart disease just a natural part of aging? 

What about genetics? Say your grandparents had heart disease, and your dad had heart surgery. Does that mean you're destined for an unhealthy heart as well?

How much does diet and lifestyle affect heart health?

I'd like to address each of these questions.

As for disease, of any kind, being a natural part of aging, many studies show otherwise. This is especially true of heart disease. While our bodies do tend to slow down with age, our arteries can remain clear and open for many years. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn's Cleveland Clinic is evidence of this. A whole food plant based diet is implemented there, and has been proven to prevent and reverse heart disease.

Nature vs Nurture

Immigration studies of most countries, including China and Japan, show that those who move to other countries tend to acquire the diseases prevalent in that area. For example, In Japan the rates of heart disease are quite low (although that's changing as they're eating more fast food). However, the Japanese who move to the United States find their risk of heart disease triple on the next 10-15 years. Why? They start to eat like Americans!

·Studies of twins who are raised in different countries show similar results. An analysis of hundreds of twin studies found that diet and lifestyle greatly affect disease state, including heart disease, blood pressure, BMI, Diabetes, cholesterol. They suggest that genetics contribute at most 58%, while at least 42% is diet and lifestyle.

The average cholesterol in Americans is 192mg/dL, with an LDL around 130 (10). At birth LDL levels are 50-70mg/dL (11), which is positively correlated with mother’s cholesterol during pregnancy. If the mother has higher cholesterol, the baby’s levels increase too.

Framingham Heart Study showed no CHD with LDL 70mg/dL (12). This study was done by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn in 1985. He had 24 patients with severe coronary artery disease who agreed to follow a WFPB diet for 5 years. No exercise regimen. 18 patients followed through.

  • Cholesterol decreased 237 down to 137
  • No coronary events, even though they had 29 events in the 8 years before study
  • 11 had no additional stenosis. 8 even had regression.
  • The 6 patients who stopped the diet had 13 cardiac events afterward.

It is recommended that we reduce LDL by decreasing: trans fat, saturated fat, dietary cholesterol (13, 14). Saturated fat is known to increase blood cholesterol. Interestingly, there appear to be hypo and hyper-responders to dietary cholesterol, with the majority being hypo.

  • Diabetes has positive relationship with cholesterol.
  • Statin drugs do appear to lower LDL, but have side effects, such as liver and muscle damage, possibly memory loss and confusion, diabetes (15), breast cancer (16).