Top 10 Heart Health Stories of 2013

Traditionally, the end of the year is a time to reflect, and this year is no different. It's been an exciting (and sometimes controversial) year for health news, whether that news is about improving heart health, increasing brainpower or using cholesterol-lowering statin drugs. As we enter into 2014, many of our New Year’s resolutions will focus on working toward happier, healthier and better selves – be it from munching a handful of walnuts or finally making time for that vacation. As the days on the 2013 calendar dwindle down, and as we look forward to the New Year, here are our picks for the top health news stories of the year:

#10 - Blood Pressure Medication May Slow Dementia

Blood pressure medication may slow dementia Common blood pressure medications may slow the rate of cognitive decline in dementia, according to a study published by BMJ Open. Researchers from Ireland analyzed the cognitive decline and brain power of 361 elderly patients, all who have been diagnosed with either Alzheimer's disease, vasculardementia, or a combination of both.  Of these patients, 85 were already using the blood pressure-lowering drugs known as ACE inhibitors, a commonly used class of blood pressure medication.

Patients who began taking ACE inhibitors actually improved their brainpower over a six month period, compared with those who were already prescribed them and those not taking them at all. This result could be the by-product of a better medication regimen, better blood pressure control, or improved blood flow to the brain, the authors suggested. Regardless, the study adds to growing evidence for the use of ACE inhibitors and other blood pressure-lowering drugs in the management of dementia, investigators said.

However, previous research has indicated that ACE inhibitors may be harmful in some cases, so if future benefit of the drugs in dementia is proven, it may be limited to certain groups of patients. The study authors called for further research of the sustained use of ACE inhibitors, which may have significant benefits for some dementia sufferers in the long-term.

#9 - New Technique Developed to Measure Aorta Stiffness

Heart monitor takes pulseA new technique can effectively see whether a patient has a hardened aorta, researchers discovered. Taking a pulse from the finger or on the arm is easier to record and nearly as accurate as the former method. Previously, the pulse was recorded from the carotid artery in the neck or the femoral artery in the groin. The new finger-or-arm technique is said to be more effective, less intrusive, and can be easily obtained during a routine exam. It works better especially for obese patients, whose femoral pulse can be difficult to obtain reliably. 

A healthy aorta is critical to heart health. A hardened aorta stiffens due to aging and an inactive lifestyle, causing the heart to work harder. The harder a person’s heart needs to work, the higher risk he or she has for developing high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack.

This new method can alert patients who are most susceptible (but might be unaware) to having hardened arteries that cause heart disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, killing about 600,000 people every year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

#8 - Statins Linked to Increased Muscle Pain...Again

Statin muscle painStatins, a class of cholesterol-reducing medication, have been once again associated with increased muscle pain. The finding comes from a study published in the Journal of American College of Cardiology carried out by researchers at the Center for Healthy Aging at the University of Copenhagen.

Up to 75 percent of the physically active patients reported experiencing pain and muscle weakness. These problems may keep people away from either taking their medicine or from taking exercise, both of which are bad choices for patients who are looking to reduce high cholesterol levels. The researchers found that patients on statin therapy had low levels of both coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) and Ubiquinol (the active antioxidant form of CoQ10) because statin drugs are designed to inhibit the body's production of  cholesterol, and cholesterol is formed via the same pathway as coenzyme Q10.

One of the professors associated with the study said the results showed that statin treatment affects the energy production in muscles, which researchers believed to be the direct cause of muscle weakness and pain in the patients. Taking Ubiquinol can counteract the decreased CoQ10 levels associated with statin drugs, and may help alleviate the associated muscle pain of taking statin medications. Ubiquinol has been shown to replenish depleted CoQ10 levels for people on statin drugs and support cardiovascular health.

#7 - Taking Vacations May Reduce Risk of Death From Heart Disease

Hotel resort poolWant to improve your health in 2014? Get out of town. That’s the finding of a new study linking travel to a lower risk of heart attack and depression and even the promotion of brain health. The Global Commission on Aging and Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, in partnership with the U.S. Travel Association, released research that shows the physical and cognitive health benefits of travel.

The study, which examined factors such as income levels and preexisting poor health, found that women who vacationed fewer than every six years had a significantly increased chance of experiencing a heart attack or coronary death compared with women who vacationed at least twice a year. The study also found that men who did not take an annual vacation were shown to have a 20 percent higher risk of death and about a 30 percent greater risk of death from heart disease. The most beneficial trips are those spent with family and friends, according to researchers, and the health benefits of travel are almost immediate. After only a day or two, 89 percent of respondents experienced significant drops in stress.

#6 - Walnuts May Help Increase Heart Health

WalnutsA simple dietary change, such as adding walnuts to a healthy diet, may reduce the risk of heart disease, a study funded by the California Walnut Board found. Researchers from Penn State, Tufts University and the University of Pennsylvania wrote in the Journal of Nutrition that consuming whole walnuts and walnut oil both lowers cholesterol and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. They highlighted three compounds of HDL, or “good cholesterol,” functionality in walnuts: the alpha-linolenic acid, gamma-tocopherol, and phytosterols.

Alpha-linolenic acid is a type of omega-3 fatty acid found in plants.  Gamma-tocopherol is a major form of Vitamin E found in many plant seeds. Phytosterols are cholesterol-like molecules found in plants that can lower cholesterol levels. These findings suggest the need to improve dietary advice for preventing heart disease (not solely treating it). More studies are also needed to learn more about the underlying connections between the foods we consume and how they can improve heart health.

#5 - Statins May Increase Risk of Diabetes

Diabetes insulin syringesStatins once again make the list. Doctors already know that taking statin drugs to treat cholesterol can reduce patients' natural levels of CoQ10 and Ubiquinol, but researchers now think statin medications can contribute to the risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Researchers from Canada conducted a population-based study on 1.5 million residents to analyze the link between individual statin use and new-onset diabetes. Many factors, like age, could explain the increased risk among people taking certain statins for new-onset diabetes, regardless of dose or treatment. Those at the most risk were patients taking certain cholesterol-lowering drugs, such as atorvastatin (Lipitor), rosuvastatin (Crestor) and simvastatin (Zocor), according to the study.

#4 - Eating Breakfast Linked to Improved Heart Health

Breakfast with eggs and toastMom was right: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, according to a new study that suggests starting the day with a healthy meal lowers your risk of heart attack. U.S. researchers analyzed questionnaires completed by 26,902 men who were free of heart disease and cancer at the start of the study. 

The men, who were between 45 and 82 years old, were asked about what they ate and when they ate it. The men then tracked their health for the next 16 years. The data revealed that the men who said they did not have breakfast had a 27 percent higher risk of heart attack or death from coronary heart disease than men who said they ate breakfast. Men who said they skipped breakfast had other risk factors for heart disease: They were younger, they were single, they were smokers, they worked full time, they did not do much exercise and they drank more alcohol.

#3 - Phone App Monitors Heart Health in Real Time

Woman holding smartphoneSoon heart disease could be as manageable as diabetes, thanks to a new smartphone accessory that uses a camera to analyze fluid samples and gives a comprehensive portrait of user's health. The device, called a smartCARD, is being developed by a professor and two students at Cornell Engineering School. It works by breaking down blood and other fluids with chemical reactions then illuminating the readable components with a diffuse flash that fires onto the test strip. Using color analysis, the device optically detects biomarkers in a drop of blood, sweat or saliva.

Right now, the device only measures total cholesterol, but researchers are trying to break out those numbers into LDL (“bad” cholesterol), HDL (“good” cholesterol) and triglyceride measurements. The senior author of the study noted that the device would be particularly useful and informative for tracking the effects of a person’s actions, such as food choices, on their cholesterol levels.

#2 - FDA Urges the Complete Removal of Trans Fats From Food Supply

French friesTrans fats are almost 86’d - or so it appears after the Food and Drug Administration proposed in a preliminary hearing that partially hydrogenated oils, the source of trans fats found in many popular food products, no longer be "generally recognized as safe." Banning them completely could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year, FDA officials said.

Partially hydrogenated oils are cheaper than saturated animal fats, such as butter, and for years were thought to be healthier. They are formed when liquid oil is treated with hydrogen gas and made solid. They became popular in fried and baked goods as well as in margarine and butter substitutes. Artificial trans fats have already been substantially reduced in foods made by companies and in restaurants, largely because of the negative publicity they’ve received as a major contributor to heart disease in the United States.

#1 - New Formula for Prescribing Statins Stirs Debate

Prescription bottle of pillsThe number of patients who should consider cholesterol-lowering statin drugs could expand into the millions because of new treatment guidelines released this year by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. But two Harvard Medical School professors questioned the accuracy of the new formula in a medical journal, saying that it overestimates patient risk for heart attack and stroke.

The new guidelines advise doctors to take a broader look at a patient's overall risk, whereas doctors have long been prescribing statins largely based on an individual's cholesterol levels. The guidelines identify four high-risk groups that could benefit from statins: people with hereditary super-high cholesterol; patients with pre-existing heart disease; older adults who have diabetes; and older adults with a risk of developing cardiovascular disease

Using the controversial new guidelines, the number of adults eligible for statins could possibly double, from about 15.5 percent to 31 percent. That means millions more people may have to endure the side effects of statin drug use, including depleted levels of CoQ10 and Ubiquinol, as well as muscle pain or weakness. Heart experts who authored the new guidelines stand by them, adding that any flaws in the formula are minor and revisions will be made as more research becomes available.

Bonus: Studies Suggest Vaccines Could Someday Improve Heart Health

Syringe and vialTwo animal studies suggest that vaccines might someday be used to reduce high cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure, according to findings presented at the American Heart Association (AHA) annual meeting in Dallas.

In both cases, the vaccines interrupt processes in the body that, if left alone, can lead to high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure. The first study, out of Vienna, found that mice and rats had lower cholesterol levels for a year following treatment with a vaccine. The second study, from Japan, used a different vaccine to lower high blood pressure in laboratory rats for up to six months. Scientists noted that research conducted in animals often fails to provide similar results in humans.

This article is for general educational purposes only and is not intended to be used as or substituted for medical advice.  Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified health care provider with any questions about your health or a medical condition.  Never disregard or delay seeking medical advice because of something you have read on the internet.