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Reversing Heart Disease through Lifestyle

By Neal Pinckney, PhD.

Neal Pinckney, PhD.

Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

I frequently saw my father, who died of a heart attack at 59, doubled over with pain. He called it indigestion. Years later, when I was shoveling dirt in my yard and a tightness across my chest kept me from continuing, it was, I told myself, muscle strain.

Muscle strain was a far more accurate diagnosis than I ever imagined. The muscle was my heart.

Luck enters into many events that change lives. In my case, it was going to a different physician. He looked over my medical records and said my cholesterol was too high. He noted that my father had died of heart disease and my blood pressure was higher than normal, making me a prime candidate for a heart attack. When he asked about any pain I had in my chest during exercise, I passed it off as indigestion, but he wasn't fooled. He encouraged me to have a treadmill test, in which heart monitors record information during exercise.

A borderline positive result indicated a need for a thallium stress test, a pair of 25-minute heart scans, the first after an injection of a radioactive isotope and the second after going on the treadmill with more thallium injected when at the maximum heart rate. This stress test compares how the heart's blood supply appears at rest and at peak demand. When not enough blood reaches the heart muscles at higher exertion levels, ischemia results. And I had it.

When the thallium scan proved positive, the next step was an angiogram. I wasn't too keen about this procedure: A catheter is inserted into the femoral artery at the groin and threaded into the heart. Different catheters are used to test heart muscles and valves and to inject a contrast medium that lets the cardiologist see exactly where any blockages are.

The results were worse than expected. My heart's right main artery was 100% blocked, and the two left arteries were 90% and 85% obstructed. Polaroid pictures showed me where these blockages were.

I was told there are usually three alternatives. The first is angioplasty, in which a balloon is inserted into the heart (in the same manner as an angiogram) and opened to press the obstructing plaque back against the artery walls. Angioplasty wasn't feasible in my case, due to the location and type of blockages. The second alternative was open-heart surgery, a bypass operation, in which a section of healthy blood vessel is shunted around each of the blocked coronary arteries. The third alternative was to do nothing except take medication and get my life together so I could die.

I was told that if I didn't have a bypass immediately, my chances of living another six months were poor.

Here were three doctors, all wanting me to be healthy, telling me I should have a bypass operation and have it soon. I was told that every tick of my heart was like the tick of a time bomb; it could go off at any moment. I couldn't accuse them of having financial motives; I belong to a prepaid health plan and the bypass wouldn't cost me anything, the doctors would receive no extra payment, and the plan would be some $75,000 poorer. The doctors kept insisting: Have a bypass now!

To get them to give me more time to think it over and explore alternatives, I told them that I couldn't have the bypass right away because it was against my religion. They asked what religion is that?

I'm a devout coward, I replied.

Scared to death (more accurately--scared of death), I started reading everything about heart disease I could get my hands on. I was lucky to be retired, with a background in research and statistical analysis. I had time to search through university libraries and, using the Internet, read hundreds of articles in medical journals and books. I found out there was another alternative to open-heart surgery that I hadn't been told about.

The scientific articles led me to a bestselling book that showed me a medically sound and proven alternative, Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease. It became my primer for survival, and it remains my guide to this day. Some of what you will read here has its roots in that book and from communications with clinicians and researchers at Ornish's Preventive Medicine Research Institute.

I learned that I could have much more control over my own destiny than I had ever realized. It taught me that my eating habits and lack of aerobic exercise in the past were the reasons for my medical problems today. It explained how to change those habits, to not only stop the progression of the disease but to reverse the damage I had done to myself.

It sounded reasonable, but I was hesitant to make major lifestyle changes on the basis of one book. Especially when my cardiologist and personal physician had doubts about this approach. So I kept on reading.

I found a number of books by John A. McDougall, MD. These backed up much of what I had learned in Ornish's book and went much further in explaining why the changes I should make would help me prevent many other illnesses, improve my general health and even relieve other conditions, such as allergies, I'd had most of my life. I learned more about what atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) is, how it forms, what it looks like, and how it can be dealt with.

About this same time, a friend and sailing partner began to have severe angina and shortness of breath. He went through the same series of tests I had but was told angioplasty would be helpful. Two days after his angiogram, he had balloon angioplasty to push back the plaque that was blocking his coronary arteries, and a few days later he was home and active again.

While I had changed my eating pattern completely, he continued eating the same things as before: meat, cheese, potato chips and cookies with lots of shortening. A few months later he was again suffering severe chest pains and shortness of breath. After more tests he was back in the hospital for a bypass operation.

I had given him Ornish's book when his heart problems first started, but it took major surgery before he would see the need to read it. He has come to understand the message and he's now living in a way that will make it unlikely he'll need surgery again. His experience reinforces the danger in putting off changes in lifestyle. It's worth your life to begin them as soon as possible.

As I read more about Ornish's program, I learned that one of the important factors for reversing heart disease is being in a support group. I called all the local hospitals, associations and social agencies in the hope of joining one, but there was none in Honolulu. My next step was to convince someone to start one, but the same reply kept coming back: If you want one so badly, why not start one yourself? I called the nearest medical center and met with the people in charge of health education. They agreed it was a good idea but didn't go ahead with it.

After six months of meetings, Kaiser Permanente, Hawaii's largest health maintenance organization, and Castle Medical Center agreed to let me start groups. Suddenly, I was to lead two groups.

When we had our first meeting at Castle, an hour and a half drive from my home, the room was swamped with 77 people wanting to join. To take as many as possible, we split into two groups, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.

Counting driving time, that made an eight hour day. Leading three groups a week and using a great deal of time preparing information, recipes and charts, I found myself spending about 40 hours a week on the Healing Heart program. So much for retirement.

I have been leading free support groups in Hawaii for more than six years, putting more than 700 participants through a 10-week series. The enthusiasm of the group members and the amazing improvements in health they report has made it a rewarding experience.

Group members report they have learned much from our groups, and I have learned much more from them than I could ever have found in books alone, gaining more knowledge and understanding about heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and many other cardiovascular-related diseases. I learned for myself how lifelong allergies disappear when certain foods are given up, notably dairy and egg products.

With each new group, I've learned new ways that others deal with their problems in adjusting to new and better lifestyles, as well as hints and tips to make those changes easier. This wealth of information led to the writing of the Healthy Heart Handbook and is a key to the success of those who seek to improve their health.

Each support group discovers its own new and different ways of adapting to a healthier lifestyle.

Finding and joining a local support group will make it easier to follow the program and keep you on target longer. Natural food stores and local vegetarian clubs often have information about support groups in the area.

Neal Pinckney is the author of the Healthy Heart Handbook. He can be reached at through the Healing Heart Foundation at .