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All About Heart Health: Questions & Answers From Our Experts

All About Heart Health: Questions & Answers From Our Experts
Feb 23 2024

Did you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.? This February, in honor of American Heart Month, we spoke with Azhil “Alex” Durairaj, MD, medical director of cardiovascular services at Huntington Health, and registered dietitian Crystal Kwan, MPH, RDN, CDCES, about cardiovascular disease, prevention and treatment. Read on for helpful information, including tips on lifestyle modifications and nutritional strategies to stay heart healthy. 

What should people know when it comes to the importance of preventative heart care?

Azhil “Alex” Durairaj, MD
Azhil “Alex” Durairaj, MD

Dr. Durairaj: The biggest risk factors for heart disease are diabetes; obesity; high blood pressure and high cholesterol. It’s important to regularly monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol levels to maintain a healthy heart. Simple lifestyle tweaks also go a long way in helping to reduce your risk factors. Be sure to manage your weight, stay active, get enough sleep and try to avoid stress.

How does diet affect cardiovascular health?

Crystal Kwan, MPH, RDN, CDCES
Crystal Kwan, MPH, RDN, CDCES

Crystal: A healthy diet is key to preventing and managing cardiovascular disease. Good nutrition can help lower your total cholesterol, blood sugar and triglyceride levels — while also improving your blood pressure. Making good food choices can also help reduce your risk for developing heart disease in the first place.

What is the most important thing you want people to know about heart health?

Dr. Durairaj: Heart disease is preventable and 100% modifiable. Just because your parents or your uncle had a heart problem, doesn’t mean you have to. Your doctor plays an important role, but you must make some effort, too, by making lifestyle modifications. This includes daily physical activity and eating a heart-healthy diet. According to the CDC, walking 150 minutes a week (or just over 20 minutes a day) can put you at a lower risk of heart disease.

How can people change their diet to make it more heart-healthy?

Crystal: Aim to eat a variety of whole foods like fruits and vegetables versus highly processed ones. Prepare more meals at home and eat out less. Most restaurant meals include more salt, sugar and fat than home cooked meals. When cooking, season foods with herbs, spices, vinegars, lemon/lime to boost flavor and utilize less salt. Replace sugar-sweetened beverages with low or no calorie beverages such as water, and drink alcohol in moderation. These changes will help:

  • Increase your fiber intake, which is good for your heart.
  • Reduce saturated fat and added sugars in your diet.
  • Lower salt levels to control hypertension.
  • Assist with weight loss, which may potentially help with other conditions such as diabetes.

Can the Mediterranean diet really improve cardiovascular health?

Crystal: Research supports practicing the Mediterranean diet for the prevention of cardiovascular disease, increasing lifespan and healthy aging. In fact, it’s been shown to reduce your risk of heart disease; metabolic syndrome; diabetes; certain cancers and depression. It prioritizes eating plants, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes. The Mediterranean diet champions cooking with plant-based oils like olive oil, eating moderate amounts of animal proteins and dairy and limiting highly processed foods and alcohol.

What is a sign that something may be wrong with your heart?

Dr. Durairaj: With heart disease, there aren’t always signs, which is why monitoring your blood pressure and cholesterol levels is critical. Often, by the time something feels noticeably off in the body, cardiovascular disease has progressed. With that said, overt warning signs for men and women can differ. Chest pain/discomfort, shortness of breath or arm tingling, should always be a concern. Women can also present with less “classic” signs including abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, jaw pain or back pain. If these symptoms are recurrent or persist, it’s important that you seek medical care immediately. 

What is something about the connection between heart health and diet that may surprise most people?

Crystal: Small, incremental changes over time can have a positive impact on your overall health. This can be something as simple as adding a piece of fruit to your afternoon snack or drinking one less soda per week. Doing something consistently is often more important than trying to change your entire diet at once, since you’re more likely to stick with it for the long run. Changing the “good” food/ “bad” food mindset will also help create a healthier pattern of eating. All foods can be enjoyed. Learning how to balance your food choices while enjoying foods from your culture or during the holidays is an important skill so that we don’t take the joy away from eating.

Is there a screening test for heart disease?

Dr. Durairaj:  A coronary artery calcium (CAC) test is a special computerized tomography (CT) scan of the heart. It looks for calcium deposits in your arteries. A buildup of calcium can narrow the arteries and reduce blood flow to the heart. A CAC may show coronary artery disease before you have symptoms. Your cardiologist or primary care physician can order it. Talk to your doctor about whether the CAC test is right for you.

What are some new medical advancements when it comes to heart health?

Dr. Durairaj: We have multiple therapies to control cholesterol now — not just statin. These alternative medications have minimal side effects, as well. There are also some exciting new treatments to control blood pressure and diabetes that are showing benefits to the heart. Additionally, there are new drugs that can permanently lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Overall, this means we’re getting really good at keeping the heart healthy. We’re also learning that a healthy heart can benefit your brain — and that’s critical because as we live longer, we want quality of life, not just quantity of life. 

What are a heart patient’s treatment options?

Dr. Durairaj: Modern medicine allows us to offer patients multiple options to treat cardiovascular disease. Depending on your condition, we may recommend stents, bypass surgery, a pacemaker or heart valve repair. In fact, at Huntington Health’s state-of-the-art Helen and Will Webster Heart & Vascular Center, we offer a full spectrum of cardiac services, including advanced medical and surgical treatments, using the latest medical technologies. With that said, treatment doesn’t stop at cardiac surgical options. Lifestyle changes are equally important for combating heart problems.

Visit to learn more about our Helen and Will Webster Heart & Vascular Center. We have also recently expanded our dedicated cardiac, vascular and thoracic surgery program. Check out to meet our expert surgeons.

You may also visit to learn more about how a registered dietitian can help you create an individualized nutrition plan to support your heart health goals this year.