February is American Heart Month, which is a great time to commit to a healthier lifestyle and make small changes that can make have a big effect on your heart’s health. According to Dr. Deepak Talreja of Bayview Cardiovascular Associates Ltd. in Chesapeake, many of the changes you can make are very simple. “We have done studies on what people can do to promote a healthier heart,” he says. “The funny thing about studies, whenever I quote them to people, a lot of it sounds like advice our parents or grandparents gave us. And we prove the same things over and over again.”
The study he is referring to was when they took 400 people here in Coastal Virginia and randomly put them into four diet groups: One that was on a Mediterranean diet, one on a vegan diet, one on a Paleo diet, and one on the American Heart Association’s recommended DASH diet. Working with the University of Virginia and the Cleveland Clinic at the University of Alabama, they did one of the most extensive bloodwork series ever tested in the world. They drew blood on day zero, at 60 days and then at six months. “It was interesting because everyone who followed the diet they were on showed improvement from when they first came in,” Talreja says. “What mattered at the end of the day was, the more compliant someone was with trying to eat more fruits and vegetables, less fried foods, less processed foods and eating more natural things, the more improvement they showed on their bloodwork.”
The second thing Talreja recommends for good heart health is to exercise five days a week. Although this is a difficult task for most people because of work demands and extracurricular family activities, studies show it’s not the intensity you exercise at but the frequency. “If you exercise five days a week, just walking 30 minutes a day, at 3 miles per hour, from a cardiovascular standpoint, that reduces your mortality rate by 20 percent,” he says. “I believe that’s an important message because I think a lot of people get discouraged with exercise. They think if they can’t do an Arnold Schwarzenegger-level workout, it’s not worth doing anything at all. That shouldn’t be the message at all. The message should be about just getting out and walking. Or if you have joint problems, getting into a pool and walking or swimming, or getting on a stationary bike for 30 minutes a day.”
The third component of good heart heath is targeted at those who smoke. In Talreja’s opinion, quitting smoking is the number one thing you can do to improve heart health, followed secondly by a better diet, and third, exercise.
For those who already have heart disease or problems, new procedures and medicines are coming out every day. “There are so many different arenas I can comment on in this regard, but one of my areas of interest is when people have a narrowing of the heart valves,” Talreja says. “Replacing heart valves used to require a massive open-heart surgery with bypass. Now, we use percutaneously implantable valves, which means they are done through a catheter that goes in through a small IV in the arteries in the legs. We can put in a whole new heart valve without having to open someone’s chest. It has truly revolutionized the field. We’re now routinely operating on 80- and 90-year-olds because we can do the procedure so minimally invasively.”