Heart Health

Howard LeWine, M.D.

New guidelines aim to help women prevent stroke

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

The first-ever guidelines for preventing stroke in women don’t fool around. They offer ways to prevent this disabling and potentially deadly event from adolescence to old age. More than half of the 800,000 Americans who have strokes each year are women. Nearly 4 million American women are living with the aftermath of a stroke. And because women live longer than men, their lifetime risk of having a stroke is higher. Those numbers are why stroke prevention is especially important for women. The guidelines cover the use of oral contraceptives, high blood pressure during pregnancy, the use of hormones after menopause, and migraine with aura. They also cover the fundamentals of stroke prevention, like controlling blood pressure, exercising more, eating a healthy diet, and not smoking.

Julie Corliss

Eating too much added sugar increases the risk of dying with heart disease

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

A sugar-laden diet boosts the chances of dying of heart disease even among people who aren’t overweight. So says a major study published online this week in JAMA Internal Medicine. Over the course of the 15-year study, individuals who took in 25% or more of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those whose diets included less than 10% added sugar. Overall, the odds of dying from heart disease rose in tandem with the percentage of sugar in the diet—and that was true regardless of a person’s age, sex, physical activity level, and body-mass index (a measure of weight). Sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas, energy drinks, and sports drinks are by far the biggest sources of added sugar in the average American’s diet. They account for more than one-third of the added sugar we consume as a nation. Other important sources include cookies, cakes, pastries, and similar treats; fruit drinks; ice cream, frozen yogurt and the like; candy; and ready-to-eat cereals.

Patrick J. Skerrett

New study adds caution to testosterone therapy for “low T”

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Mass marketing of testosterone therapy may have men eager to try this seemingly simple fix. But the latest science should have them scratching their heads and putting away the credit card—at least for now. A new study published in the online journal PLOS One shows an increase in the risk of having a heart attack in the months after starting testosterone therapy. The potential for danger was highest in older men. A report in the November 6, 2013, issue of JAMA showed that men who used testosterone therapy didn’t fare as well after artery-opening angioplasty as men who didn’t take testosterone. Neither was the type of study that can prove cause and effect. They can only show associations, or links. That means there’s no smoking gun here that testosterone therapy is harmful. But the studies do suggest caution. Given the uncertainly over the benefits and risks of testosterone therapy, what’s a man to do? Take a cautious approach, advises the Harvard Men’s Health Watch.

Daniel Pendick

Mediterranean-style diet linked to healthier arteries throughout the body

A landmark clinical trial done in Spain, known by the acronym PREDIMED, continues to support the health benefits of following a Mediterranean-style eating pattern. Last year, PREDIMED researchers reported that Mediterranean-style eating—rich in fruits, vegetables, and healthy plant oils—prevents heart attacks, strokes, and death from heart disease. This week in The Journal of the American Medical Association, they report that a healthy Mediterranean-style diet can also help prevent peripheral artery disease (PAD), a form of “hardening of the arteries.” It’s an important finding, since as many as 12 million Americans have PAD. It can cause leg pain when walking that goes away with rest (called intermittent claudication); a weakening of the aorta, the main pipeline that delivers blood to the body; pain after eating; erectile dysfunction; and other problems.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

New guidelines published for managing high blood pressure

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

When it comes to your “health numbers,” your two blood pressure values are important to know—and keep under control. New guidelines for managing high blood pressure in adults, released this morning in a report in JAMA, aim to help doctors know when to start treating high blood pressure and how best to do it. The new guidelines recommend different treatment targets for individuals age 60 and older and those under age 60. They also offer doctors advice on the best medications to start with to control high blood pressure. Although the new guidelines address an area of controversy—how low should blood pressure go—they don’t change the basics: Know your blood pressure. Consider high blood pressure to be a reading of 140/90 or greater. Lifestyle changes are important. And tailor treatment to your needs.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Heart attack chest pain is similar in women and men

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

In many ways, women are different from men. One way in which they are alike is how they “feel” a heart attack: with similar kinds of chest pain. Other heart attack symptoms may differ, but chest pain is pretty standard, according to European study of nearly 2,500 men and women. Few differences in chest pain were seen between the sexes. What’s more, the kind or duration of chest pain didn’t help tell a heart attack from some other problem. The conclusion? A careful medical history, an electrocardiogram, and blood tests are the best way to diagnose a heart attack in men and women. During a heart attack, more than three-quarters of men and women experience chest pain or discomfort. In the run-up to a heart attack, chest pain with exertion is a more common warning sign in men, while women often have other types of symptoms, such as fatigue and disturbed sleep.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Cholesterol guidelines update: controversy over heart risk calculator

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

It’s been a topsy-turvy few days in the world of heart health and disease. Last week, the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology released new guidelines that upended previous recommendations for who should take a cholesterol-lowering statin. A few days later, two Harvard physicians challenged the accuracy of the calculator included in the guidelines, saying it would cause many people to unnecessarily take a statin. The story made headlines in The New York Times and prompted a closed-door review by the guidelines committee. The controversy over the calculator should serve to improve this tool. Adoption of the guidelines should help prevent more heart attacks, strokes, and premature deaths. It’s important to keep in mind that guidelines are just that—information to guide a decision, not to mandate it. The best approach is to talk about what’s best for you with a trusted physician.

Reena Pande, M.D.

Cholesterol and statins: it’s no longer just about the numbers

Reena Pande, M.D., Instructor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School

Updated cholesterol guidelines released yesterday by the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology aim to prevent more heart attacks and strokes than ever before. How? By increasing the number of Americans who take a cholesterol-lowering statin. The previous guidelines, published in 2002, focused mainly on “the numbers”—starting cholesterol levels and post-treatment levels. The new guidelines focus instead on an individual’s risk of having a heart attack or stroke. The higher the risk, the greater the potential benefit from a statin. A statin is now recommended for anyone who has cardiovascular disease, anyone with a very high level of harmful LDL cholesterol, anyone with diabetes between the ages of 40 and 75 years, and anyone with a greater than 7.5% chance of having a heart attack or stroke or developing other form of cardiovascular disease in the next 10 years.

Stephanie Watson

Radiation for breast cancer can increase heart risks

Radiation, on its own or coupled with other treatments, has helped many women survive breast cancer. Yet radiation therapy can cause the appearance of heart disease years later. New research published in JAMA Internal Medicine estimates that the increased lifetime risk for a heart attack or other major heart event in women who’ve had breast cancer radiation is between 0.5% and 3.5%. The risk is highest among women who get radiation to the left breast—understandable, since that’s where the heart is located. The heart effects of radiation begin emerging as soon as five years after treatment. However, future heart risk should not be the reason to abandon this important component of treatment. Cancer experts are doing more and more to minimize the amount of radiation the heart receives.

Julie Corliss

Flu shot linked to lower heart attack, stroke risk

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Getting the flu shot may do more than protect against the flu and its lingering aftermath. It also lowers a person’s odds of a having heart attack, stroke, heart failure, or other major cardiac event—including death—by about a third over the following year. What’s the connection between flu and cardiovascular problems? The body mounts an impressive immune response against the flu. That causes a lot of inflammation, which destabilizes cholesterol-filled plaque inside blood vessels. Plaque rupture can cause a heart attack or stroke. Experts recommend a flu shot for everyone six months of age and older. It is especially important for those who face the highest risk of complications: young children; adults over age 50; those of all ages with serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, asthma or other lung disease, liver or kidney disease, or diabetes; and those who care for young children or other individuals at high risk of flu complications.