When most people think about monitoring their heart health, they think about their cholesterol levels. And yes, it is true that cholesterol can to a point reflect the state of your cardiovascular system, it is an oversimplification to think it is the only factor. Recent research in the past 5-10 years clearly points to some other very valuable markers that help us to understand cardiovascular health to a much deeper degree. Combining these markers with traditional cholesterol values gives the most comprehensive assessment of cardiovascular health from blood work.
The heart is a vital organ that pumps blood to the rest of the body. Blood carries oxygen and nutrients to the body’s cells, making the heart’s health essential to the proper functioning of all organs and systems. Heart disease is a leading cause of death worldwide, with an estimated 17.9 million deaths annually. While high cholesterol levels are a well-known risk factor for heart disease, there are other factors that can affect heart health, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, and obesity.
High Blood Pressure- High blood pressure is a common condition that can cause significant damage to the heart and other organs over time. Blood pressure is the force of blood against the walls of the arteries, and when it is consistently high, it can lead to damage to the arteries and the heart. Hypertension is a significant risk factor for heart disease and stroke, and it can be managed through lifestyle changes, medication, and regular monitoring.
Diabetes- Diabetes is a condition that affects the body’s ability to produce or use insulin, leading to high levels of sugar in the blood. Over time, high blood sugar levels can cause damage to blood vessels and nerves, leading to an increased risk of heart disease. Managing diabetes through diet, exercise, and medication can help to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Smoking- Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease, and it is estimated to be responsible for one in four deaths from cardiovascular disease. Smoking damages the lining of the arteries, leading to the build-up of plaque, which can cause blockages in the arteries, reducing blood flow to the heart. Quitting smoking can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and other health problems.
Obesity- Obesity is another significant risk factor for heart disease. Excess weight can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, all of which increase the risk of heart disease. Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise can help to reduce the risk of heart disease and improve overall health.
Beyond these well-known risk factors, there are other factors that can contribute to heart diseases, such as stress and sleep deprivation. Chronic stress can lead to an increase in the body’s stress hormones, which can cause damage to the arteries and increase the risk of heart disease. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, as it can lead to an increase in stress hormones and a decrease in the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels.
Inflammation plays a large part in the development and progression of atherosclerosis. The process of building a plaque is as much due to having excess lipids as it is to have the inflammation to fuel the advancement of that plaque formation. People at risk for heart disease, or just wanting to know their current risk factors, now need to start considering lab tests other than just cholesterol and triglyceride levels to account for the inflammation factor.
For the time being, one of the most valuable tests for assessing inflammation, especially of the blood vessels, is called C-Reactive Protein. People with elevated lipid levels can have up to 4-fold increased risk for a heart attack. People with elevated lipid levels and elevated C-reactive protein levels can have up to an 8-fold increase in a heart attack. C-Reactive Protein is a marker for inflammation in the entire body but seems to be of particular importance when looking at cardiovascular health and blood vessel inflammation.
There are several nutritional factors that can help reduce inflammation in the body. Paying attention to the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the diet is very important. Typical American diets are heavily skewed towards omega-6 fatty acids which are found in animal proteins, trans-fats, grains, and refined carbohydrates. Omega-6 acids can be metabolized to arachidonic acid, one of the most inflammatory substances found in our bodies. Omega-3’s on the other hand, found in wild fish and wild game, are metabolized to the most anti-inflammatory substances found in the body.
Homocysteine is an amino acid normally produced in small amounts by the body. When homocysteine exceeds certain levels, it begins to destroy the cells that line blood vessels and stimulate the formation of atherosclerotic plaques. Homocysteine may be elevated in some people due to certain genetic anomalies. However, in most of the population high homocysteine levels are due to a poor diet lacking in folic acid and other B vitamins. Eating junk food, fast food, high sugar foods and not eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables will promote excessive homocysteine blood levels. Eating a diet of healthful foods like leafy greens and fresh vegetables rich in folate and B vitamins can help reduce levels of homocysteine.
Asking your doctor for C-Reactive protein levels as well as homocysteine levels are an important part of assessing cardiovascular risk factors.