Can You Turn Heart Disease Around?

By Turner, Polly 
March 21, 2017

Can You Turn Heart Disease Around?

Worried about heart disease? There’s some good news: Once arteries start getting clogged after years of high-fat eating and too little exercise, it may be possible to reverse the process.

New research suggests, at least for some people with coronary artery disease, high doses of statins, a commonly prescribed medication to lower cholesterol, can actually begin to reopen the arteries that supply blood to the heart. The drug therapy is most successful when combined with dietary changes, exercise and other lifestyle improvements.

“Reversing coronary artery disease isn’t easy, but it can be done,” says Steven E. Nissen, M.D., president of the American College of Cardiology and interim chairman of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

In a recent study headed by Dr. Nissen, close to three-quarters of patients taking higher doses of statins experienced a reversal of the buildup of plaque in coronary arteries. On average, patients had a 7 to 9 percent reduction in plaque.

“This disease takes decades to form,” says Dr. Nissen. “Getting that level of reduction in 18 to 24 months was pretty extraordinary.”

Prevention still important

Not everyone can reverse existing heart disease, Dr. Nissen warns, and it’s always far better when you can keep your blood flowing smoothly from the start by leading a healthy, active lifestyle.

Why? For one thing, the first symptom of coronary artery disease is often a heart attack. The disease leads to about a million heart attacks a year, and it’s the top cause of death in the United States.

Smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol all contribute to coronary artery disease. So do obesity, diabetes and physical inactivity. In a process called hardening of the arteries, plaque forms in the arteries as excess fat, calcium and other deposits build up. Healthy eating, regular physical activity and avoiding tobacco are important ways to prevent narrowing of the arteries.

Shifting into reverse

If you already have coronary artery disease, it's important to lower your blood cholesterol level, Dr. Nissen stresses. Ask your doctor for advice on healthy ways to do this.

These may be among your options:

  • A heart-healthy diet. “Eating a diet low in animal fat and saturated fats and higher in unsaturated fats can typically lower the cholesterol level by 10 percent,” says Dr. Nissen. “That’s not enough by itself to reverse coronary artery disease, but it can definitely help control cholesterol.” A healthy diet also includes foods low in calories, sodium and refined sugars, and is rich in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products.

  • Physical activity. A heart-healthy lifestyle includes at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day on most days of the week. Examples of aerobic activities include brisk walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, and jumping rope. Adding a moderate strength-training regimen also provides significant health benefits. Be sure to get your doctor’s approval and guidance before starting an exercise program.

  • Drug therapy. Your health care provider may recommend a low-fat diet and exercise before suggesting medication. But if you’re trying to reverse heart disease, not just prevent or control it, you also need drug therapy, Dr. Nissen insists. “For most people, taking statins is safer than taking a baby aspirin each day,” he says. “As long as you’re getting good care from your physician and reporting any side effects, you’re likely to do very well with statins.”

  • Quitting smoking. Smoking just one or two cigarettes a day can significantly raise your risk for heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular conditions. For healthy people, the risk of getting coronary artery disease decreases by 50 percent within one year after quitting smoking.

  • Diabetes control. People with diabetes are at increased risk for high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which in turn raises the risk for heart disease.

  • A healthy weight. Excess weight contributes to the onset of cardiovascular disease. It tends to raise cholesterol and blood pressure levels and increase the risk for diabetes.

  • Moderate use of alcohol. Be aware that drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure and lead to stroke or heart failure. Alcohol in excess also contributes to irregular heartbeat and obesity. Men should have no more than two alcoholic beverages a day, women no more than one.


March 21, 2017


Vitality magazine/September 2006

Reviewed By:  

Carolyn BrownCarolyn Brown RN MN CCRN CNS,Godsey, Cynthia M.S., M.S.N., APRN,Lambert, J.G. M.D.