, Newburyport, MA


November 15, 2013

Health and Well-Being: Reflections on heart disease

Health experts have estimated that nearly 44 million Americans have some form of cardiovascular disease. About 1.5 million Americans will have a heart attack this year, and more than 500,000 Americans will die because of their cardiovascular problems. For half of them, the first sign of heart disease is death. By age 56, heart disease will be the principal cause of death in 30 percent of American women and 50 percent of men.

What is remarkable about these figures is not only that they are so high — but that they do not have to exist. Cardiovascular illness is a mindbody problem that can be prevented.

Among the leading cause of heart ailments is coronary artery disease. This involves atherosclerosis and fatty plaque formation that cause a narrowing in the blood vessels. Because the heart is a pump that circulates blood, when blood vessels are narrowed, the heart becomes strained because it has to work harder to get its job done. Constricted arteries and vessels also reduce blood flow back to the heart and to other organs, including the brain.

The process that causes constricted blood flow, because it is silent and hard to identify, often goes unnoticed by routine physical exams, until it is too late. As a consequence, it is critically important that we develop an active approach to our cardiovascular health that includes an awareness of our personality functioning, stress levels, heredity, and other lifestyle risk factors such as smoking, exercise and nutrition. We can then make changes, if necessary, that can greatly reduce our chances of heart disease.

A phenomenon called “free radical” pathology has been identified as a contributing factor to atherosclerosis. A free radical is a kind of unstable molecule formed by oxidation. Free radicals seek each other out and “cross-link,” which is similar to the coming together of cells in a scar when a wound heals. Cross-linking leads to a process like scarring on the arterial walls that restricts blood flow and puts strain on the heart. Free radicals are generated naturally with age, but stress biochemistry can significantly increase their numbers.

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