February is American (Sweet) Heart Month

by Kathleen W. Paulson, M.D., F.A.C.O.G.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, I pause to think about love, hearts and my own sweet heart, my husband George.  Over a year ago, just after his 57th birthday, I started to worry a bit about his health.  What could I do to help keep him around for many more healthy years?  The physician in me knew that the #1 killer of Americans was heart disease.

My husband did not have any of the typical risk factors for heart disease: he was slender, active and had never smoked.  He did, though, have a family history of heart disease: his uncle Bill was also slender, active and a non-smoker, but had his first bypass at the age of 60.  I don’t know about you, but 60 used to seem like a million years down the road. Last year though, with George officially in his late 50s, the age of 60 seemed far too close for comfort.

For many Americans heart disease has been thought of as just an inevitable part of life, a natural consequence of aging.  Many Americans expect to die of heart disease, but hope that our amazing technology can stave it off for as long as possible.  A look around the world, though, is all it takes to see that death from heart disease is not, in fact, inevitable.  There are parts of the world where heart disease is almost unheard of.

I began looking for information about who gets heart disease and my research lead me to The China Study by Dr. T. Collin Campbell, a highly respected biochemist from Cornell University. In the book, he presented the findings of a 20 year research project–one of the most comprehensive studies of nutrition ever–which linked diet with heart disease as well as other illnesses.  He documented that heart disease is virtually non-existent in persons who eat a plant-based diet.  Heart disease is, in fact, primarily a disease of developed countries, a disease of abundance, not scarcity.  Based on his research, it appeared that the standard American diet (S.A.D) which is high in saturated fat, was making Americans sick.

Further research has documented the same findings.  The INTERHEART study involving more than 50 countries and sponsored by the World Health Organization attempted to tease out modifiable risk factors for heart disease. The results, published in 2004 in The Lancet (one of the world’s most highly respected medical journals), concluded that more than 90% of heart disease risk is due to lifestyle, particularly diet. The most important risk factor by far was having an elevated cholesterol level followed by smoking and then inactivity. The physician presenting the findings at the European Society of Cardiology Congress stated that “mankind is doing a good job of killing himself.”  Their follow up study published in 2010 called INTERSTROKE concluded that 90% of strokes were preventable as well.

But what if a person already has some degree of heart disease?   According to Dr. Dean Ornish, the pioneer of heart disease reversal, our approach to heart disease–treating it with medicines, procedures and surgeries– is like mopping up around an overflowing sink, without bothering to ever turn off the faucet.  He published research over 30 years ago documenting for the first time that diet and lifestyle can prevent and even reverse heart disease.  Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, renowned general surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic and author of Preventing and Reversing Heart Disease, lamented that we were treating heart disease surgically without ever doing anything to prevent the disease. He put Dr. Campbell’s research to the test by treating patients with severe heart disease with a low-fat plant-based diet and actually documented reversal of their heart disease. The editor of the American Journal of Cardiology agreed with Dr. Esselstyn’s observations over a decade ago stating that we should shift our emphasis from treatment to prevention. More specifically, he asserted that to avoid heart disease, a person’s total cholesterol level should be about that of your average vegan.

It appears that heart disease is not inevitable at all, but is rather, as Dr. Esselstyn put it, a “toothless paper tiger that need never exist.”

After reviewing the literature, I was encouraged. We did not necessarily have to expect the same heart disease that George’s uncle experienced. I found all this information empowering: there actually was something we could do to prevent it.  We decided to modify our diet, or at least give it a try, so we began eliminating animal products.  First I cut out meat—that was the easiest part.  Next I eliminated eggs—harder to give up than meat, but manageable.  Finally, I cut out dairy, which I thought was going to be impossible–how could I live without cheese?  After a three week trial, my husband willingly began following “our” new diet, and while we found it tricky at times socially, we’ve never had second thoughts.  One year later, he’s off his cholesterol medication. Not only have we reduced our risk of heart disease, but we both feel great.

For more information, watch the documentary “Forks Over Knives” (instant streaming on Netflix and Amazon, or check it out at your public library) and read the works of the physicians mentioned above. Ask your physician to check your cholesterol. Get some support from literature, websites, blogs and try going whole foods, plant-based.

For those who would like a lot of support, try the 21 Day Kickstart Program.  http://www.pcrm.org/health/diets/kickstart/kickstart-programs

The Forks Over Knives website is full of information, recipes, videos and other resources


About the Author

Kathleen W. Paulson, M.D., F.A.C.O.G. is a gynecologist at Renaissance Women’s Healthcare Partners, a MANA clinic. Dr. Paulson cares for women of all ages, but specializes in problems of the perimenopausal transition, life after breast cancer and women’s wellness with an emphasis on healthy aging. She and her husband George have been married for 28 years.