Critical Senior Heart Health Tips From an Expert

Dr. Janet Bond Brill (photographer: Marina Larenz)
Dr. Janet Bond Brill (photo credit: Marina Larenz)

Learn the most important senior heart health tips from Dr. Janet Brill, a licensed dietitian and nutritionist with a doctoral degree in Exercise Physiology. Dr. Janet's book, Prevent a Second Heart Attack, published in February 2011, provides a thorough overview of how individuals can reverse heart disease through diet and exercise.

Expert Senior Heart Helps Tips: Dr. Janet Brill

LoveToKnow (LTK): Given the advanced degrees in nutrition and in exercise physiology that you have earned, you must have a keen interest in health. What originally inspired you to choose this field of study?

Dr. Janet Brill (DJB): I have always been interested in health and fitness. After graduation from college, I went on to become a flight attendant. With the erratic schedule and jet lag lifestyle I started to put on weight. At that point, having tried every fad diet, I decided to go to graduate school to study the science of nutrition and exercise. I was also interested in heart disease because my father died at a young age from his second heart attack and I want to do everything that I can so that I don't suffer his same fate!

LTK: When did you start working on Prevent a Second Heart Attack: 8 Foods, 8 Weeks to Reverse Heart Disease. What was your main motivation for this book?

DJB: Several years ago, as a registered dietitian specializing in cardiovascular disease prevention, I noticed that heart attack survivors simply were not following a lifestyle plan that would help them to prevent a second attack. The problem is that many of these individuals find the "cardiac diet" too restrictive or complicated, and some receive no lifestyle counseling whatsoever. What's more, if the heart attack survivor decides to go it alone and purchase a self-help book, he or she may reach for one of the best-selling heart disease reversal books that promote an "extreme" fringe diet. Most of these books feature spartan, vegan-style eating plans that are simply too difficult to follow. If one can't stick to a heart disease reversal plan-then you can be sure that the plan will not reverse the disease.

On a more personal note, my husband, Sam, had his first heart attack two years ago at age fifty-one. So I wrote this book with the hope that Sam, Harry (my father-in-law who also has heart disease), and the 16 million other American heart disease survivors will follow the advice set forth in these pages: a livable lifestyle that will show them the way to a long, happy, and healthy life by teaching them how to prevent that second lethal attack and even reverse the actual disease process.

Heart Disease in Seniors

healthy eating

LTK: How can seniors reverse heart disease? Why is your approach more effective than other mainstream approaches?

DJB: Why should heart attack survivors be punished further with the burden of tasteless, low-fat plans when there is a better way? A tremendous amount of research has investigated various diet and exercise plans for preventing further coronary events; the bulk of the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the notion that post-heart attack patients should eat a Mediterranean-style diet, be physically active at least thirty minutes a day and not smoke. In fact, the famed Lyon Heart Study that tested a Cretan Mediterranean diet in cardiac patients reported a phenomenal reduction of recurrence rate of 70 percent compared to the control diet (a typical low-fat Western-style diet).

Thus, a Mediterranean style of eating combined with physical activity is the optimal lifestyle plan for preventing a second heart attack. It is far superior to the nutrition plan of a low-fat vegetarian diet typically prescribed to heart patients in the fat-phobic '90s (which continue to line bookstore shelves today). I propose that a Mediterranean-style diet, as outlined in Prevent a Second Heart Attack, can be even more effective than the eating plans currently recommended by many cardiologists - simply because it tastes good and makes life more enjoyable. Following vegan-style plans can also reverse heart disease but only if adhered to - an extremely difficult chore for most Americans.

LTK: Why is it important for seniors to prevent a second heart attack from occurring?

DJB: According to a 2011 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics report from the American Heart Association, "Approximately 34percent of the people who experience a coronary attack in a given year will die of it." My father died from his second attack. A major cardiac event, whether it's your first, second or sixth, is a life-threatening occurrence. Everyone diagnosed with the disease should do everything in their power to prevent another cardiac event from occurring.

LTK: How do diet and exercise interact with one another in heart disease?

DJB: What you eat can propel atherosclerosis (the disease process of plaque-buildup in the coronary arteries) or heal the arteries...the choice is up to the individual. The best medicine for healing the arteries and reversing heart disease is moderate exercise. Combine the two and you have the optimal lifestyle changes-alongside drugs-for preventing a second heart attack and even reversing heart disease.

Heart Disease and Exercise

Prevent a Second Heart Attack

LTK: What kind of exercise can reverse heart disease in seniors?

DJB: After a heart attack, risk factors still continue to contribute to the progression of atherosclerosis. Remaining sedentary is a major risk factor. Exercise can reduce progression and promote regression of atherosclerosis, greatly reducing the odds of suffering a second attack. Hippocrates was truly the wisest of men when he stated over 2,000 years ago that "walking is man's best medicine."

LTK: Can seniors with physical limitations still get enough exercise to reverse heart disease?

DJB: Aerobic exercise (such as walking) and strength training, either alone or in combination, safely improve blood vessel function in cardiac patients after a heart attack. If physical limitations prevent seniors from walking (an aerobic exercise), try swimming. Strength training can be performed with disabilities under the guidance of a knowledgeable personal trainer.

One caveat: When it comes to exercise and physical fitness, it is wise to talk with your personal physician to find out whether exercise is right for you. Also, if you have been sedentary for a long time, you must begin an exercise program gradually, under your physician's supervision. (If you already have been diagnosed with heart disease, your doctor should recommend that you undergo cardiac rehabilitation after your heart attack, especially if you have never exercised on a regular basis.)

Results from Senior Heart Health Tips

LTK: Can you really reverse heart disease in just eight weeks?

DJB: Yes. Studies published in leading medical journals have shown that following a lifestyle similar to the one outlined in my book, combined with physician-prescribed medications, can stabilize and even reverse vulnerable plaque. Clinical research has shown a significant reduction in the rate of secondary events in post-heart attack subjects switching to a Mediterranean-style diet in as little as six weeks. The Indo-Mediterranean Diet Study also showed that after one year, subjects following the Mediterranean diet cut risk of death from a cardiac event by a whopping 42 percent.

LTK: Is your advice universal? Does it apply not only to seniors with heart disease, adults of all ages, both with and without heart disease?

DJB: We are all at risk for heart disease-the leading cause of death in both men and women. All of us (individuals with diagnosed cardiovascular disease and healthy people who wish to stay that way) should be living the type of lifestyle outlined in my new book.

LTK: Your 2006 book Cholesterol Down: Ten Simple Steps to Lower Your Cholesterol in Four Weeks--Without Prescription Drugs received rave reviews. Does the plan you advise in Prevent a Second Heart Attack provide as impressive results as the cholesterol-lowering plan of your 2006 title?

DJB: I give heart attack survivors the best lifestyle strategy - based on mountains of scientific evidence - which, combined with the best of modern medicine, allows survivors to take action to stop the progression of their disease and even promote reversal and stabilization of dangerous vulnerable plaque. If followed, this approach is the most advantageous for promoting a longer life among heart attack survivors.

2006 cover

LTK: What are the most important senior heart health tips to remember in order to have a healthy lifestyle with low cholesterol and reduced heart disease risk?

DJB: I recommend follow a Mediterranean-lifestyle. Slow down and drink a glass of red wine with dinner. Additional tips include:

  • Aim for ideal cholesterol levels: a LOW LDL cholesterol less than 70 mg/dL and a HIGH HDL of at least 60 mg/dL
  • Get your blood pressure and diabetes under control
  • Lose weight
  • Don't smoke
  • Walk daily

More Advice from Dr. Janet

For even more tips and information from Dr. Janet, both Prevent a Second Heart Attack and Cholesterol Down can be purchased from local bookshops and online retailers.

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Critical Senior Heart Health Tips From an Expert