Your heart is pretty incredible. This organ that’s about the size of your fist is among the most important organs in your body, as evidenced by the protective cage surrounding its central location. Starting to beat around week four of fetal development, your heart will eventually beat around 100,000 times a day, pumping around 1.5 gallons of blood every minute in adults.1 This blood travels from your garden hose-sized aorta to tiny capillaries as small as five microns in diameter which are in every crack and corner of your body. These capillaries are no further than a few microns away from every cell, except for the corneal cells of the eye.2 As we are coming to the close of February, American Heart Month, let us consider just how important keeping your heart healthy is. Do the choices you make really have that big of an impact on your heart health?
Since the heart is such a vital organ, when it fails to do its job for even a few seconds, we can lose consciousness; if this continues for just minutes, a person may die. The heart stopping—cardiac arrest—usually results from an abnormal rhythm of the electrical impulses conducting the heart, called arrhythmia. Arrhythmias may happen as a result of developmental abnormalities; however, in the U.S. and many Western countries, arrhythmias are most often a result of abnormal blood flow to the heart.3 This condition may be caused either by clogged arteries limiting blood flow, or a heart attack, where blood flow is cut off and heart muscle dies.4
Here in the U.S., heart disease is an epidemic. Every year over 647,000 people die as a result of heart disease, making it the number one cause of death for both men and women.5 In other words, it is the most likely way that you and your loved ones will die. Additionally, nearly everyone eating a standard American diet (most Americans) starts developing heart disease at a young age.6 End of story. Looks like we are all destined to die from this disease unless something else kills us first, right? Fortunately, this is not the case at all.
The western heart disease epidemic was first described in the 1970s by epidemiologists. They found that some cultures seem to lack the major killing diseases found in Western countries7— including clogged arteries—even when controlled for age and gender.8 Around the same time, medical journals began to document cases where patients with symptoms of heart disease drastically improved after beginning plant-centered diets similar to the ones in these other cultures.9 However, it wasn’t until 1998 that a randomized clinical trial demonstrated that arteries will literally begin to “unclog” after just a year of a plant-centered diet combined with other healthy lifestyle behaviors.10 Subsequent studies have also demonstrated the clearing of this plaque (atherosclerosis) with a similar protocol, even in patients with severe coronary artery disease who were previously scheduled for surgical intervention.11
Wait, but you’re a college-aged young person like me; how is this relevant to us? Heart disease won’t begin affecting us for a few more decades! Here is why it is important for anyone, at any age, to take good care of their heart: heart disease, like almost all of the top killers (among non-communicable chronic diseases), develops over long periods of time.12 In the case of heart disease, someone with a typical American diet will already have the beginning stages of atherosclerosis by age 10.13 The choices you make and the habits you form during college will likely have a major impact on your health down the road.
As American Heart Month comes to a close, let’s take the time to remember the importance of having a healthy heart. The choices you make throughout your life are vital in helping you steer clear of the diseases that claim the most American lives. We can learn from the lifestyles of people who don’t get heart disease and those who benefit from interventional trials by developing similar habits. These habits include maintaining an active lifestyle while refueling primarily with minimally-processed plant foods—such as fruits, veggies, beans and whole grains—while avoiding red meat, highly refined breads and sugary drinks.14