I was shocked to learn that Carrie Fisher, the actress who played Princess Leia in the original Star Wars movies, died today from complications of a massive heart attack.
She was only 60.
Her passing left me feeling empty, like a piece of my childhood was gone. After all, I was just a little girl when Star Wars was popular the first time around. Understandably, I found the movies and their sometimes-creepy characters scary, but I was fascinated by Princess Leia. She was smart and sharp and didn’t take guff from anyone. I couldn’t relate to Luke Skywalker or odd-sounding robots, but little Lee thought Leia was way cool.
So I took it hard when I found out about her death.
Gone too soon
Here’s the thing. Carrie Fisher’s untimely passing didn’t just make me sad. It also made me mad. Because it’s possible her untimely death could have been avoided.
According to the American Heart Association, 80% of “heart and stroke events” may be prevented.1 Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, who first proved that a low-fat, plant-based diet can reverse heart disease, goes further, calling heart disease “a toothless paper tiger that need never exist.” Yet rarely do doctors tell us how to lower our risk of this silent killer, except to admonish us to eat healthy. And that advice is often too little, too late.
Because heart disease often starts in childhood and develops over a lifetime. Anyone who’s eaten that Standard American Diet (SAD) at any point during their lives is at risk. As Carrie demonstrated, heart disease can take your down even if you’re at an otherwise healthy weight.
Of course, I don’t know Carrie’s medical history. She could have had a heart defect, or a strong genetic predisposition, or something entirely unrelated to diet that triggered her heart attack. Or perhaps she had been trying to manage her heart disease, but traditional medicine and lifestyle measures failed her. Regardless, her passing is a tragic reminder that heart disease is still the #1 killer of women.1 And for some, the first sign of trouble is a deadly heart attack.
So what can we do to prevent ourselves, our parents, and our kids from getting heart disease? Here’s what the science says:
5 Proven ways to protect yourself from the #1 killer of women
1. Move towards a low-fat, whole-food, plant-based diet
Only one way of eating has been proven in multiple published studies to stop the progression of heart disease and even re-open clogged arteries for some. (Without surgery!) So, what’s the “magic” diet?
- Vegan or vegetarian
- Low in fat (~10% of calories) and free of added oils
- Low in “white carbs” (refined flour, sugar, etc.)
- High in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and lentils
- Supplemented with vitamin B12 and ground flax seed for omega-3 fats2,3
For more information, see Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn or The Spectrum by Dr. Dean Ornish. (True confession: I’ve been way, way off the wagon over the holidays, but I’m clawing my way back up. Join me in getting back on board–more in the next post!)
2. Eat your oatmeal
I know this tip is oddly specific, but oatmeal is delicious magic for heart disease. The soluble fiber in oatmeal soaks up cholesterol like a sponge and whisks it out of your body. In fact, multiple studies have shown that eating oats lowers total cholesterol by 5% and bad cholesterol by an average of 7%.4 To try: Yummy 5-minute carrot cake oatmeal.
3. Quit smoking
The chemicals in cigarette smoke harm the cells that line your blood vessels. These same chemicals also injure the heart muscle itself. So snuff out that cig and take a 5-minute walk break instead. Your heart will thank you!5
4. Move 30 minutes a day
Speaking of walk breaks, to lower your risk of heart disease, the American Heart Association suggests 30 minutes of moderate physical activity 5 days a week.6 Of course, the more the merrier—especially if you’re trying to lose weight or keep it off. Just be sure to start slow and check with your doctor if you have a health condition. If you’re tight on time, you can break it up into three 10-minute blocks. That means your 10-minute speed walk to the coffee shop for an afternoon java jolt gets you a third of the way to your goal. (Just hold the cream and sugar once you get there, lol!)
5. Make time for friends
When life gets busy, it’s easy to let friendships slip. After all, when you’re barely keeping your head above water, how on earth can you take a break for a chat? You’d drown! Yet getting the support of a friend is a bit like being thrown a life preserver—literally and figuratively. Not only can talking with your bestie give you perspective on your problems, but maintaining your social network may lower your risk of heart disease by some 30%.7 Want to make more friends? Check out this article on the science of making friends as an adult from the Wall Street Journal.
So farewell, Carrie Fisher, and thanks for adding girl power to Star Wars. You’ll be missed, but hopefully your passing will raise awareness of heart disease in women—and what we can do to reduce our risk.Click here for references
- American Heart Association. “Heart disease statistics at a glance.” https://www.goredforwomen.org/about-heart-disease/facts_about_heart_disease_in_women-sub-category/statistics-at-a-glance/
- Esselstyn CB Jr, Ellis SG, Medendorp SV, Crowe TD. A strategy to arrest and reverse coronary artery disease: a 5-year longitudinal study of a single physician’s practice. J Fam Pract. 1995 Dec;41(6):560-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7500065 ; Esselstyn CB Jr, Gendy G, Doyle J, Golubic M, Roizen MF. A way to reverse CAD? J Fam Pract. 2014 Jul;63(7):356-364b. http://dresselstyn.com/JFP_06307_Article1.pdf
- Ornish D et al. Intensive lifestyle changes for reversal of coronary heart disease. JAMA. 1998 Dec 16;280(23):2001-7. Erratum in: JAMA 1999 Apr 21;281(15):1380. http://ornishspectrum.com/wp-content/uploads/Intensive-lifestyle-changes-for-reversal-of-coronary-heart-disease1.pdf
- Othman RA1, Moghadasian MH, Jones PJ. Cholesterol-lowering effects of oat β-glucan. Nutr Rev. 2011 Jun;69(6):299-309. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21631511
- NHLBI. How does smoking affect the heart and blood vessels? https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/smo
- American Heart Association. American Heart Association recommendations for physical activity in adults. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/PhysicalActivity/FitnessBasics/American-Heart-Association-Recommendations-for-Physical-Activity-in-Adults_UCM_307976_Article.jsp#.WGMSe1z4HCs
- Knapton S. Having no friends could be as deadly as smoking, Harvard University finds. The Telegraph website. August 24, 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/08/24/having-no-friends-could-be-as-deadly-as-smoking-harvard-universi/