Ask the expert: Can I reverse heart disease?

Healthy diet and exercise can prevent heart problems, but can they also reverse the effects of heart disease? Dr. Lori Tam weighs in.    

  • Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States. 
  • Certain types of heart disease can be reversible with medicine and healthy lifestyle changes. 
  • It’s crucial to “know your numbers” to better understand your risk for heart disease and the steps you need to take.

[4 MIN READ]

Almost everyone in the United States has been touched by heart disease in some way. It is the number one cause of death among men and women and affects nearly half of all adults.

As one of our country’s leading health problems, you hear a lot about heart disease prevention. But what happens after you’re diagnosed? Are there ways to reverse the effects of heart disease? 

We sat down with Lori Tam, MD, medical director for the Women’s Heart Program at the Providence Heart Institute, to discuss steps you can take to improve your health after being diagnosed with heart disease. Read on to hear from Dr. Tam and her advice for boosting heart health.

Q: Is it possible to reverse heart disease or the heart damage it causes?

Dr. Tam: With medications, a healthy lifestyle and dietary changes, the majority of heart conditions can be well-managed and stabilized, which can prevent the disease from getting worse. 

Certain types of heart disease can be reversible. In coronary artery disease, where there is cholesterol plaque buildup in the heart’s arteries, healthy lifestyle changes and medications (such as statins) can stabilize the condition, prevent additional plaque deposits and, in some cases, help reverse the severity of the disease.

With similar lifestyle changes and medicine, damage caused by congestive heart failure can be reversed as well.

Learn more from Dr. Tam about how a healthy lifestyle can help curb heart disease risk:

Q: What tests should I get to monitor my heart disease? What numbers should I keep track of?

Dr. Tam: Understanding the severity of your heart disease starts with “knowing your numbers,” which are key indicators of your heart health. These numbers include:

  • Blood pressure 
  • Cholesterol
  • Blood sugar 
  • Body mass index (BMI)

You should make a point to review these numbers every year with your doctor, or more often if they are abnormal. A healthy range for these numbers will vary depending on your age and overall health. If needed, you and your doctor can develop a strategy to get any abnormal numbers to a healthy range. 

Your doctor may also consider doing a coronary calcium scan to see how much calcified or hardened plaque is in your heart’s arteries. This test can show whether you are at a higher risk for a heart attack or stroke and help your doctor determine whether you need a more aggressive plan to manage your risk factors.

Q: Are there medicines I can take to help reverse heart disease? 

Dr. Tam: For adults who already have coronary artery disease, doctors usually recommend aspirin or statin medicines. 

  • Aspirin has blood thinning properties and can help prevent blood clots. 
  • Statins are medicines that lower cholesterol, reduce inflammation and stabilize existing plaque so it is less likely to rupture and cause a blood clot.

In certain people who don’t have known heart disease, statins may also help reduce the risk of developing a heart attack or stroke.

Q: What are some healthy diet changes I can make to help reverse my heart disease or make sure it doesn’t get worse?

Dr. Tam: In general, we recommend a diet that avoids: 

  • Processed food, such as frozen meals, hot dogs or fast food.
  • Simple carbohydrates, such as white rice or white bread.
  • Saturated fats, which are found in fried food, cheese and fatty meat.

A good example of a heart-healthy diet is the Mediterranean Diet, which is rich in “good” fats, such as olive oil, fish, avocados and nuts. The Mediterranean Diet is also filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and less red meat. 

If you do decide to eat meat, choose lean meat whenever possible — such as fish or poultry — and limit your serving to no more than 5.5 ounces per day.

You should also avoid excessive salt intake, which can increase blood pressure and make fluid retention worse in patients with heart failure. Most adults should aim for no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day, according to the American Heart Association.

Q: How much should I exercise to help keep my heart disease under control?

Dr. Tam: We recommend at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity at least five days a week for heart health. If you’re looking to lose weight, you may need to exercise for more extended periods or more often. 

Exercise can include a formal fitness program at the gym or other activities you enjoy, such as swimming, water aerobics, gardening, speed walking or hiking. The point is to keep your heart rate up and stay as active as possible. Talk to your doctor about which exercises are safe for you.

Q: What other lifestyle changes can I make to help reverse the effects of heart disease?

Dr. Tam: In addition to diet and exercise, you should also avoid smoking and excess amounts of alcohol. Men should have no more than two servings of alcohol per day and women should have no more than one serving a day. A serving of alcohol is equal to 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or one-and-a-half ounces of distilled spirits. 

If you smoke, talk to your doctor about ways you can quit. You can access a Providence smoking cessation class in Oregon or Southwest Washington, or take advantage of our online resources.

We also recommend getting screened for sleep apnea if you believe you may have severe snoring or sleeping problems. Treating sleep apnea and getting a good night’s sleep can significantly reduce your risk for certain heart conditions.

Q: Is there anything else you would like people to know about preventing or reversing heart disease?

Dr. Tam: Although heart disease is the number one killer of women and men in the U.S., 80% of heart disease is preventable. You can make a big impact on your risk with what you do, how you eat and how you live. By starting with small steps every day, you can take control of your risk for heart disease. 

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Find a doctor

Whether you’re looking to reverse the effects of heart disease or lower your overall risk, it’s essential to work with your doctor on a heart-healthy plan. He or she will be able to make recommendations that fit your needs and lifestyle.  

If you need heart care, Providence’s heart and vascular specialists provide award-winning cardiovascular treatment. You can find a Providence doctor using our provider directory. Or, you can search for a primary care doctor in your area.

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Are there steps you can take to reverse the damage of heart disease? One of our cardiologists weighs in. #hearthealth 

Related articles 

The surprising ways losing weight can aid your heart

Four life hacks to improve heart health

Can a lack of sleep affect my heart?

Hidden risks of heart failure

What you should know about coronary calcium

7 heart healthy swaps for processed foods

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Heart & Vascular Team is committed to bringing you many years of expertise and experience to help you understand how to prevent, treat and recover from cardiovascular diseases and conditions. From tips to eating better to exercise and everything in between, our clinical experts know how to help you help your heart.

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