Yes, You Can Reverse Heart Disease—Here’s How
Certain lifestyle factors contributing to heart disease are within your control—even after the condition has taken hold.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease, which affects 1 in 12 Canadians over 20, is actually a group of diseases. It includes coronary artery disease (hardening of the arteries), arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) and abnormalities in the heart’s shape, called structural disease. Any of these issues can lead to heart failure, which is when the heart becomes unable to pump enough blood around the body—a condition that affects 100,000 Canadians every year. Heart failure lowers a person’s quality of life considerably, due to shortness of breath, constant fatigue and trouble sleeping. It can ultimately become life-threatening if left untreated.
Other medical conditions, your biological sex, and your genes can all affect your risk of developing heart disease, but lifestyle factors can also come into play—including smoking, level of physical activity, diet and alcohol consumption. And it’s those lifestyle factors that can be changed to prevent, or even reverse, at least one form of heart disease—coronary artery disease, also called atherosclerosis.
What does it mean to reverse heart disease?
According to Dr. Salim Yusuf, professor of medicine at McMaster and chief scientist and cardiologist at Hamilton Health Sciences, if coronary artery disease is caught early enough, it can be reversed—that is, the heart can be brought back into a healthy, functioning state.
Since so many adults are at risk of heart disease—nine out of ten Canadians have at least one risk factor—monitoring blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol can help you know if your risk is increasing. Ideally, your doctor would notice these markers before you have any symptoms, such as chest pain, shortness of breath or light-headedness.
“Once heart disease is fully established,” says Yusuf, “only in some patients—maybe a third or fourth of cases—can it be reversed to some extent.” He notes, however, that even in these cases, its progression can be stopped.
What kind of lifestyle changes can reverse heart disease?
Yusuf says that quitting smoking cigarettes—or not beginning if you don’t smoke already—is one of the best ways to both prevent and reverse heart disease. Smoking increases plaque in our arteries, leading to atherosclerosis, while the chemicals in cigarettes cause the blood to thicken and create clots, which can lead to strokes. About 16 per cent of the 70,000 deaths caused by heart disease or stroke in Canada happen because of smoking. But people who quit smoking can start seeing benefits immediately—within one year, the risk of a heart attack drops significantly, and the risk of coronary artery disease drops by half.
In addition, Yusuf says that exercise—even small things like incorporating daily walks into your routine or climbing up a few flights of stairs—can make a real difference. That’s because physical activity can help to lower blood pressure, increase healthy types of cholesterol, and improves your muscles’ ability to take oxygen from the blood, which reduces the need for your heart to pump as hard. One study found that increased leisure physical activity resulted in a 21 to 29 per cent reduction of coronary artery disease events.
A healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in carbohydrates and highly processed foods can help, too, by improving cholesterol levels, reducing blood pressure and allowing you to maintain a healthy weight.
If heart failure can’t be reversed, can it be treated?
According to Dr. Jacqueline Joza, a cardiac electrophysiologist and assistant professor of medicine at McGill University, determining how to treat heart failure depends on the underlying cause. Someone with a narrowing of the arteries may first be prescribed medications. For blood pressure, these can include diuretics, beta-blockers or ACE inhibitors, while cholesterol is most often treated with statins. Diabetes is most commonly treated with insulin—though the type and amount will vary depending on your diagnosis.
If your doctor determines that you need surgery to treat your coronary artery disease, they may suggest an angioplasty, which opens up blocked or narrow coronary arteries, or a coronary artery bypass surgery, which redirects blood flow around the narrowed arteries.
What are the benefits of reversing heart disease?
Heart disease can take a huge toll on a person’s quality of life limiting the physical and social activities they can take part in. About 50 to 70 per cent of people with heart failure experience depression, though it’s a two-way street—some are diagnosed after heart failure, while people with pre-existing depression seem to have a higher rate of heart disease. And over 40 per cent also experience cognitive impairments. For example, vascular dementia, which occurs when there is not enough blood flow to the brain, can be caused by coronary artery disease.
Joza adds that reversing heart disease and improving heart failure can mean going for a walk without struggling to breathe and getting a better night’s sleep. These things, in turn, create a positive feedback loop—you feel better, so can do more of the activities that will make you feel even better.
Since the heart delivers blood to all your organs, a healthy heart can also prevent problems in other parts of your body, including in your kidneys, liver and lungs. While reversing heart disease might seem overwhelming, Yusuf says he’s seen it happen for many people in his practice. It’s “absolutely possible,” he says.
Now that you know it’s possible to reverse heart disease, find out what happens when you start walking 10,000 steps a day.