How to Reduce the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

Identifying and Reducing Cardiovascular Risk

Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States — in both men and women. While men tend to worry about cardiovascular risk more than women, cardiovascular disease kills more women than all forms of cancer combined. Unfortunately, only 44% of women are aware that cardiovascular risk is their biggest health threat. Here’s the good news: these conditions are both diagnosable and preventable. Dr. Alice Nguyen and Stark CEO Todd Vande Hei had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Gordon Gunn to discuss how to identify and reduce cardiovascular risk:

Dr. Gordon Gunn sports a pink shirt and striped tie under his white coat

What is the Underlying Cause of Cardiovascular Issues?

The short answer is that inflammation is the primary cause of cardiovascular risk. Dr. Gunn elaborates on this information: “It appears that the underlying pathology of atherosclerosis — which is the plaque in arteries that causes strokes and heart attacks — is inflammation. Inflammation is a whole subject within itself. In some cases, inflammation is healthy. It is the body’s way of healing itself from the invasion of bacteria, trauma, heavy metals, and things we ingest. Acute inflammation is what the body uses to heal injury, and it allows healthy tissues to regenerate. Chronic inflammation is almost (in many cases) a self-perpetuating process.”

Here’s the thing: there are two types of inflammation. Acute inflammation is good because it helps our bodies heal and regenerate healthy tissues. Chronic inflammation is the underlying cause of many reversible diseases — including cardiovascular disease!

Many times, cardiovascular disease is linked to a person’s genetics. On the flip side, studies show that a high intake of processed foods and a low intake of fiber, fruits, and vegetables can also cause chronic inflammation. These foods cause inflammation and gradually build cholesterol plaque that obstructs blood flow. Dr. Gunn says, “It’s the rupture of the unstable plaque that is the cause of all heart attacks. The degree of inflammation in the plaque makes the tissue so unstable that it weakens and fractures.”

How to Reduce Cardiovascular Risk

Four major lifestyle choices affect your risk for cardiovascular disease: how you eat, the amount of routine exercise you get, how you sleep, and how you handle your stress. If you eat well, exercise regularly, get adequate sleep, and manage your stress — your systematic inflammation will go down. These are all preventable lifestyle choices that will lower your risk!

How to Detect Cardiovascular Risk

Did you know that 50% of people first know they have cardiovascular disease after having their first stroke or heart attack and surviving it? When it comes to getting checked for cardiovascular disease, men get looked at a little closer than women because most studies done before twenty years ago were all done with men — it was thought that cardiovascular disease was a man’s disease.

Dr. Gunn believes cardiovascular disease is still the number one killer in this country because not everyone knows the significant risk (particularly women). He recommends getting a computerized tomography (CT) coronary angiogram, an imaging test that looks at the arteries that supply blood to the heart.

He says, “In many women, it tends not to attack the large arteries. It attacks the smaller arteries. The smaller ones get the disease in them. The angiogram looks at the large arteries — it typically won’t show microvascular disease. It gets missed that way.” Cardiac CT is typically the best cardiovascular test for women because small blockages show up on the imaging.

the imaging results of an advanced cardiac CTA scan that show not only the heart, but also major arteries and veins

If there’s one takeaway from reading this article, Dr. Gunn wants to emphasize that you need to be the number one advocate for your health: “Half of everyone who has a heart attack or stroke has normal cholesterol. Half of the disease and impending events are being missed on annual examinations because it’s not being looked at. If you want an idea of your true health, you have to know to demand it. That testing that we just outlined is the tip of the iceberg. It’s completely up to you. Almost across the board, heart attacks and strokes are preventable. I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and I believe no one should have a heart attack or stroke (or very rarely).”