New early warning could save your heart years before signs of trouble

Heart disease and stroke remain among the top causes of death from disease in the U.S., with 659,041 deaths from heart disease and 150,005 deaths from stroke recorded in 2019. With these numbers, it’s important to know the warning signs…

For heart attack, the signs are discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back; shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort; pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach; or other signs like breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

For stroke, the signs are a numb or drooping face, arm numbness or weakness, one arm drifting downward when you lift both arms, slurred speech or speech that’s difficult to understand.

However, these signs often don’t show up until right before the event occurs. Thus, it helps to have other ways to determine whether you’re at risk for heart attack or stroke. Researchers exploring ways to identify those at high risk for these events have discovered one measurement that’s quite reliable…

Calcium in the abdominal aorta can forecast risk

According to a study led by Edith Cowan University (ECU) in Australia, calcium build-up in the abdominal aorta, a major artery outside the heart, could predict future heart attack or stroke. This measurement could help doctors identify people at risk of cardiovascular disease years before symptoms arise.

The international team of researchers analyzed 52 previous studies and found people who have abdominal aortic calcification (AAC) have a two to four times higher risk of a future cardiovascular event like a heart attack or stroke. According to this research, the risk of future cardiovascular events rises with the amount of calcium in the blood vessel wall. Also, the study showed people with AAC and chronic kidney disease were at even greater risk than those with AAC alone.

Calcium can build up in the blood vessel wall and harden the arteries, blocking blood supply or causing the plaque in the artery to rupture, which is a leading cause of heart attacks and strokes. Factors contributing to arterial stiffening include poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, smoking and genetics.

Lead researcher and Associate Professor Josh Lewis from ECU’s School of Medical and Health Sciences says the findings offer important clues for cardiovascular health. He observed heart disease is often considered a “silent killer” because many people don’t know they have the early warning signs, such as abdominal or coronary artery calcification.

“The abdominal aorta is one of the first sites where the build-up of calcium in the arteries can occur — even before the heart,” he adds. “If we pick this up early, we can intervene and implement lifestyle and medication changes to help stop the condition progressing.”

Population‐based studies have found AAC occurs in about 1 in 3 people aged 45 to 54 years and up to 9 in 10 people aged over 75 years. AAC is often identified incidentally in many routine tests, including x-rays or lateral spine scans from bone density machines.

“This can signal an early warning for doctors that they need to investigate and assess their patient’s risk of heart attack or stroke,” Prof. Lewis says. They can do so by initiating a more comprehensive cardiovascular risk assessment, including blood pressure and cholesterol testing or a heart health check.

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Controlling calcium in the blood

With calcium, balance is key. It’s important to get enough calcium to keep your bones strong and your body functioning well, but get too much and it can wreak havoc with your health. Too much calcium in your blood, known as hypercalcemia, can cause weak bones and kidney stones and interfere with heart and brain function.

To help control blood calcium levels and prevent arterial stiffening, it’s important to choose your medications carefully. For instance, you should avoid the NSAID Celebrex because it’s actually been shown to increase calcium buildup and arterial stiffening. And while L-type calcium channel blockers stop calcium from entering blood vessel cells, these medicines may still thicken and stiffen the lining of the blood vessels by causing overactivity in a specific protein molecule.

There are some natural ways to help control the amount of calcium in your blood. As is usually the case in health matters, quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet and getting exercise helps keep calcium levels balanced. Since dehydration can make hypercalcemia worse, try to drink at least four to six cups of water daily.

As far as getting calcium in your diet, whether through food or supplements, make sure you check with your doctor before lowering your intake of calcium. You don’t want to go too far in the opposite direction and end up with a calcium shortage.

There are two vitamins that can help your body better process the calcium you consume. Vitamin D is necessary to make sure your body’s properly absorbing the calcium you take in. And vitamin K2 helps the body produce a protein that diverts calcium to the bones instead of letting it build up in the arteries.

You can get vitamin D through sunlight exposure or from milk fortified with vitamin D, while vitamin K2 is found in dairy products, miso, liver, beans and chickpeas. But if you don’t want to risk a deficiency, you may want to take supplements for both of these vitamins.

The recommended amount of vitamin D for adults ages 19 to 70 is 600 IUs per day, while adults older than 70 should get 800 IUs daily. A blood test can check your levels and in the case of deficiency your doctor may advise 1,000 IUs daily or 5,000 IU twice weekly of vitamin D3 to boost and maintain your levels adequately.

As far as vitamin K2 goes, 100-150 mcg daily decreases C-reactive protein, increases arterial elasticity, decreases arterial plaque and decreases coronary heart disease and total mortality. The seven-year prospective Rotterdam Study of 4807 subjects (2004), as well as a later prospective study (2009) of 16,057 women, showed a significant reduction in heart attack and all-cause deaths at 22-50 mcg daily and 30-40 mcg daily.

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Heart Attack and Stroke Symptoms — American Heart Association

New research reveals early warning sign for heart disease — Edith Cowan University

The Blood Pressure Drug That Makes Blood Pressure Worse — Easy Health Options

The Arthritis Drug That Makes Your Heart Old And Tired — Easy Health Options

Vitamin D Fact Sheet for Health Professionals — National Institutes of Health

One Must-Have Supplement For Better Blood Sugar, Arteries And Bones — Easy Health Options

Hypercalcemia — Mayo Clinic

How to Lower Calcium Naturally —

These supplements fight heart disease better than statin drugs — Easy Health Options

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.