The Best of Both Worlds Is Key to Heart Health

  • Take a deep breath. Hold it for 29 seconds.
  • In those 29 seconds, someone in the United States had a coronary event. In the next 30 seconds, someone will die from one.
  • Eighty-five percent of those who die from coronary heart disease are 65 years old or older.

These statistics, from the American Heart Association, sound like bad news, particularly to the 76 million American baby boomers.

The good news is that deaths from heart disease and stroke have fallen 60 percent since 1950. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, "Preventing Cardiovascular Disease: Addressing the Nation's Leading Killer," also says that eliminating cardiovascular disease would extend life expectancy in this country by ten years.

But is that possible? Can you really eliminate the threat of heart disease? And, if so, should you follow the advice of your conventional health care provider? Or listen to the alternative medicine enthusiasts? Perhaps both.

Differing Views of the Heart

According to Western medicine, it's basically a pump that circulates blood through the pipes, or blood vessels, of the body. Genes, smoking, bad diet, lack of exercise and stress can block those pipes, forcing the pump to work too hard and causing diseases of the heart and blood vessels. The American Heart Association wants you to avoid tobacco smoke; monitor high blood pressure; eat foods low in cholesterol and saturated fats; be physically active; maintain a healthy weight and have regular medical exams.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the heart is more than a physical pump — philosophically, it's also the residence of the mind, spirit and personality. Dr. Roger Jahnke is doctor of acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine, chairperson of both the Qigong Department at the Santa Barbara (Calif.) College of Oriental Medicine and the National Qigong Association, and author of The Healer Within.

"In Chinese medicine or Chinese philosophy, you think of a person in terms of the heart because heaven and earth merge to make a human being, and the place that they merge is in the heart," he says.

In TCM, the force that keeps life going is qi (pronounced chee), loosely defined as vital energy. The balance of yin and yang determines qi; bad diet, stress and/or insufficient exercise can cause yin and yang to become out of balance, disrupting the flow of qi. One symptom is "thick" blood, which makes the heart ill.

Ayurveda is India's 5,000-year-old "science of life." There too the heart is the most vital organ, says Dr. Vasant Lad, director of the Ayurveda Institute in Albuquerque, N.M. "The heart is the state of mind and consciousness, and it circulates life energy." He adds, "All factors affect the heart. We must take care of the whole person — lifestyle, diet and quality of life, according to his or her individual constitution." Each person's constitution is a combination of three "doshas" — or energy types — and "perfect health is a state of balance between the three doshas," Lad notes.