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12 Heart Health Breakthroughs That Could Save Your Life

Advancements in prevention, diagnosis, and treatment are helping more people survive heart attacks and live longer than ever before.

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A test that checks for genetic heart conditions

Your genes may be working against your heart. In a landmark study, a group of international researchers pinpointed a blood test that can screen for “all known inherited heart condition genes,” according to a press release. (The research was published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Translational Medicine in 2016.) It’s a significant breakthrough because, as the researchers note, this blood test is accurate, results can be received faster, and it’s more cost-effective, too. Though it looks like it’s only available internationally for now, it’s already being used to screen patients. These are the 5 heart disease risk factors you never knew.

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Your fitness tracker may watch over your heart

Talk about taking health tracking up a notch: In partnership with Stanford Medicine, Apple just launched their Apple Heart Study app, which uses the device’s heart rate sensor to monitor when someone may experience an irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation, the company announced. “Through the Apple Heart Study, Stanford Medicine faculty will explore how technology like Apple Watch’s heart rate sensor can help usher in a new era of proactive health care central to our Precision Health approach,” Lloyd Minor, dean of Stanford University School of Medicine said in a press release. If you’re over age 22, you can download the app and sign up.

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Women are less likely to get heart disease—here’s why

While heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, their risk is still lower than men’s. Now a new study sheds light on why: it’s all about how the ovarian hormones. “This is the first study to demonstrate a link among female ovarian hormones, the circadian system which regulates the body’s day-night cycle, and the observation that women enjoy significant protection against heart disease when compared to men,” study author Tami Martino said in a press release regarding the study, which was published in Cardiovascular Research. The added protection sticks around until menopause. This is how heart disease symptoms are different for women.

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Coffee gets its day as a heart-smart beverage

Finally, the brew you love so much in the morning can revamp its bad reputation—this is one habit you don’t have to give up. In 2017 preliminary research presented at a conference for the American Heart Association found that each cup of coffee lowers the odds of heart failure by seven percent and stroke by eight percent compared to those who avoid it. Go ahead and pour yourself a cuppa.

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The high blood pressure rules have changed

Doctors used to follow the recommendation that high blood pressure equaled a reading of 140/90 mm Hg or higher. Now, new guidelines from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology have lowered that threshold to 130/80 mm Hg. Estimates say this increases the number of Americans with high blood pressure to 50 percent. If you fall into that group, here are the 30 things you can do right now to lower your numbers.

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Knowledge that two is better than one

As the American Heart Association noted in its report on breakthroughs in heart and stroke advancement, a series of studies prove that “reducing both blood pressure and cholesterol is better than doing either alone.” Talk to your doctor about what steps—lifestyle changes and possibly medications—you can take to address both risks of heart disease. Here are the 14 things you think cause heart disease but don’t.

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A reason to stock up on nuts

You may be wary of nuts—all that fat!—but almonds, cashews, and walnuts are enjoying their nutrition fame right now as disease-fighting powerhouses. That’s because in 2017, a large-scale study that looked at about 200,000 men and women found that those who ate walnuts once a week had a 19 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 23 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease. (Those who ate at least two servings of peanuts and tree nuts also enjoyed a drop in both rates of disease, too.)

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A targeted drug with added benefits

A new drug may represent a sea change in the way heart disease is treated. The drug, canakinumab (made by Novartis) works by reducing inflammation (rather than acting on cholesterol) and is taken just four times per year. New research notes that the drug reduced the risk of a heart attack or stroke by 15 percent compared to a placebo group. “This is the first evidence we have that if you inhibit this inflammatory process without changing cholesterol at all, you’re getting a risk reduction,” study author Paul M. Ridker, MD, told The New York Times. It also appeared to reduce lung cancer rates, too.

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You don’t need to be “at risk” to have a heart attack

It’s common to be warned about the risk factors for heart disease, including smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But about one-quarter of people who suffered a heart attack had none of these risk factors, reports a 2017 study in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. Researchers may now have an explanation: Recent findings reported in the New York Times suggest that stem cells in the bones may mutate and then release mutated white blood cells into the blood stream. The blood cells then lodge in arteries, where they trigger inflammation and create blockages. The phenomenon is called CHIP (clonal hematopoiesis of indeterminate potential), and its every bit as dangerous as high LDL cholesterol or elevated blood pressure. Although the research is preliminary—and there’s not much you can do to prevent this risk—the explanation provides a target for treatment that may help prevent heart attacks down the road. All the more reason to be on the lookout for these common signs of a heart attack.

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There’s more to learn about HDL cholesterol

HDL has long been dubbed the good guy when it comes to cholesterol, as it helps sweep bad cholesterol from arteries, protecting against heart disease. Doctors urge patients to increase their levels when possible. However, 2016 research challenged that view when it discovered that some people have a genetic variant that increases both HDL levels and heart disease risk, indicating that HDL numbers can’t tell the entire story, the National Institutes of Health reports. The conclusion: how HDL is functioning in arteries may be more important than individual levels when it comes to your heart. Here are the 20 foods that can unclog your arteries.

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Statins are a major player in prevention

The cholesterol-lowering drugs are nothing new and are often touted as the “drug of the century.” Researchers are uncovering just how important they are in heart disease. In a study in Circulation, people with high LDL cholesterol who took statins were 27 less likely to develop cardiovascular disease—and 28 percent less likely to die—over the 20-year follow-up period. The evidence on their preventative power is robust.

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A new way of looking at plaque deposits

Atherosclerosis happens when deposits called plaque buildup in arteries, slowing and potentially blocking blood flow. There are two types: Hard plaque, which is made up of cholesterol and calcium, and soft plaque—an inflamed part of an artery that can burst. While experts used to believe that hard plaque was less worrisome than soft plaque when it came to heart attacks, they may be reversing their tune. After tracking the arterial plaque of 224 heart patients over a seven-year period, researchers found that the greater presence of the harder calcium plaques may be more predictive of a heart attack compared to soft plaque. Their findings, which were presented at the American College of Cardiology Scientific Sessions in 2017, may help scientists to determine who’s at risk for heart problems and treat them most effectively. Next up, learn the 45 things heart doctors do to protect their own hearts.

Jessica Migala
Jessica Migala is a freelance health and fitness writer with more than a decade experience reporting on wellness trends and research. She's contributed to Health, Men's Health, Family Circle, Woman's Day, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among other publications. Jessica lives with her husband and two young sons in the Chicago suburbs.