Are Food and Fitness Enough to Fight Coronary Artery Disease?

Jill Shook was 32, a long-time runner who worked out regularly and ate a healthy diet when a year ago she received a diagnosis she never expected: coronary artery disease (CAD).

The shock started with her annual physical, where her doctor discovered that her cholesterol was very high. Shook, a speech language pathologist and business consultant in Pittsburgh, couldn’t understand what caused the spike.

She ran in a half marathon and other races, did high-intensity workouts, and cooked almost all of her meals. Her cholesterol had been stable and in a healthy range for years. Rattled, she went home and did a little research.

Shook had a prior heart condition stemming from her bout as a toddler with Kawasaki disease, which inflames the blood vessels throughout the body. It took 10 days to correctly diagnose Shook’s illness. By the time she received treatment, she had developed four bulging aneurysms in her heart.

Throughout her childhood, Shook took aspirin and vitamin E, and lived in fear that her aneurysms might rupture.

“If any of them had burst, unless I had been on an operating table, I could have died,” she says.

But at age 17, Shook’s doctors said the aneurysms were gone and gave her a clean bill of health.

“I thought I was done with that and the danger had passed,” Shook says.

While investigating the sudden spike in her cholesterol, Shook discovered that some people who had Kawasaki disease as children have coronary artery disease as adults.

“It was a huge shock,” Shook says.

Shook revamped her diet to make it even more heart-healthy. She cut back on red meat and prepared more meatless dishes for her family. Still, those changes weren’t enough to bring down her cholesterol.

The only thing that’s helped with that “is the statin,” she says. “Now, I’m on a statin for the rest of my life.”

Sometimes it frustrates Shook that she can’t manage her CAD just with exercise and healthy habits. At the same time, she’s grateful to have the treatment option with medications.

Taking statins, Shook says, “doesn’t change anything about my lifestyle except that I add another pill to my vitamin routine.”

Medication and CAD

Many people with CAD, like Shook, need to take medication in addition to maintaining a healthy lifestyle to help manage their blood pressure and cholesterol, or prevent the progression of their heart condition. Medication needs may change through the years and some people require multiple medications.

Each person’s body, lifestyle and risk factors are different, so your doctors personalize medications for each person’s needs.

Life After Cardiac Arrest

Kristi Wells, 73, is a retired paraeducator in Washington state who has lived with coronary artery disease since 2015. Doctors found a small blockage in her heart but told her she was otherwise fine. Wells, who has always been active, went on with her life. A few weeks later, she had a cardiac arrest and wound up with two stents in her heart.

“I had a stomachache, but I thought it was due to the chili I had eaten,” Wells says. “I remember walking into the bathroom and felt like someone was pushing a spoon onto the roof of my mouth.”

Instead of calling 911, Wells drove herself to a nearby hospital. Wells was extremely lucky, and managed to arrive safely without endangering herself or others on the road. Once at the hospital, she felt severe pain in her arm and quickly passed out. Women are less likely than men to have chest pain during a heart attack. When Wells left the hospital to go to cardiac rehab, she was given a bag full of pills.

“I made a deal with my cardiologist. I said, ‘If I get my numbers back to where they should be then can we back off some of the pills?’” she says. “He said yes.”

With the encouragement and support of her daughter and cardiologist, Wells made changes.

First Wells slowly shifted her diet toward more whole foods. She and her daughter switched from cow milk to milk made from oats or almonds. They cooked less red meat and tried different vegetarian and vegan recipes. Wells also began to exercise, meditate, and do yoga.

At her 6-month checkup, Wells’s cholesterol had dropped and her cardiologist took her off one drug and lowered the dose on the rest.

But in 2017, Wells began to see spots in her right eye. Her doctor found a vein weaving into her retina, a problem usually caused by diabetes or high blood pressure. Wells recently began taking a diuretic to help manage the symptoms.

“I get that a lot of people don’t want to take pills, but If you need it, you need it,” Wells says.

“There is life after cardiac arrest, after coronary artery disease,” she says. “You put one foot in front of the other, and if you miss a step that’s OK. Just keep going.”

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