Your Heart is in Your Hands

When it comes to your ticker’s health, genes do not determine destiny. Here’s how to take control of your future.

Your Heart is in Your Hands
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My dad had his first heart attack at age 46, and quadruple bypass surgery at 48. His father dropped dead at age 54. Every limb of my family tree is abundant with bad fruit—apparently healthy aunts, uncles, grandmas and cousins have keeled over prematurely with little warning. Others have endured open-heart surgery, angioplasty, a life of drug-juggling and repeated medical interventions. I have seen perfectly stoic doctors flinch when reading the family history in my chart.

I just turned 45, I’m at risk, and I’m not alone. According to a recent study published in the journal Circulation, less than 8 percent of Americans are considered to be at low risk for heart disease. It’s still the No. 1 killer of both women and men, and more than 80 million of us—1 in 3—have already developed heart disease in one form or another, chiefly high blood pressure and clogged arteries. Doctors have suggested that I get on meds now to lower my blood pressure and cholesterol as a preventive measure. Sad to say, both have been creeping up, and I’m seriously weighing my options.

Say yes to drugs?
Taking drugs as a first course of action is the American way, but this raises a whole series of questions: Can I be OK without medication? Am I doomed if I don’t take it? And most importantly: Is a grim future really in my genes? Maybe, no and no. For many people with heart disease risk factors, cholesterol-lowering drugs and other medications aren’t necessary and may, in fact, be detrimental to overall health, says Mark Hyman, M.D., author of the functional-medicine bible The Ultramind Solution (Scribner).

“Doctors are over-prescribing medications with the idea that lowering the numbers will lower risk, but that’s not the case,” Hyman explains. “It’s resulted in a generation of Americans who think they can take the pills and do whatever they want and everything will be fine. But if you look at the data carefully, the drugs we’re using really aren’t that helpful,” Hyman adds. “You can’t prevent or treat heart disease without addressing the real causes: poor diet, stress, environmental toxins and a sedentary lifestyle.”

In fact, your lifestyle can even trump your genetic legacy. “For 80 percent of us, it’s how you live your life that determines whether or not your genes express themselves,” says Mimi Guarneri, M.D., director of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine and author of The Heart Speaks: A Cardiologist Reveals the Secret Language of Healing (Touchstone). “I’ve seen identical twins manifest totally different health profiles.” The other 20 percent may need medication, Guarneri says, but can still use lifestyle measures to reduce the amount they need.

So what changes should I—and you— make? The basics are simple: Stop smoking, eat a diet low in saturated and trans fats and simple sugars; don’t overdo alcohol; exercise. Beyond that, consider these heart-health experts’ recommendations: