- Cardiovascular disease dramatically increases the risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19, again highlighting the importance of preventing these diseases in order to live long and healthy lives.
- And it is possible! Numerous studies clearly show that more than 80% of cardiovascular diseases can be prevented by simply adopting 5 lifestyle habits (not smoking, maintaining a normal weight, eating a lot of vegetables, exercising regularly, and drinking alcohol moderately).
The current COVID-19 pandemic has exposed two major vulnerabilities in our society. The first is, of course, the fragility of our health care system, in particular everything related to the care of the elderly with a loss of autonomy. The pandemic has highlighted serious deficiencies in the way this care is delivered in several facilities, which has directly contributed to the high number of elderly people who have died from the disease. Hopefully, this deplorable situation will have a positive impact on the ways of treating this population in the future.
A second vulnerability highlighted by the pandemic, but much less talked about, is that COVID-19 preferentially affects people who present pre-existing conditions at the time of infection, in particular cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. These comorbidities have a devastating impact on the course of the disease, with increases in the death rate of 5 to 10 times compared to people without pre-existing conditions. In other words, not only does poor metabolic health have a disastrous impact on healthy life expectancy, it is also a significant risk factor for complications from infectious diseases such as COVID-19. We are therefore not as helpless as we might think in the face of infectious agents such as the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus: by adopting a healthy lifestyle that prevents the development of chronic diseases and their complications, we simultaneously greatly improve the probability of effectively fighting infection with this type of virus.
Preventing cardiovascular disease
Cardiovascular disease is one of the main comorbidities associated with severe forms of COVID-19, so prevention of these diseases can therefore greatly reduce the impact of this infectious disease on mortality. It is now well established that high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol are two important risk factors for cardiovascular disease. As a result, the standard medical approach to preventing these diseases is usually to lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels with the help of drugs, such as antihypertensive drugs and cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins). These medications are particularly important in secondary prevention, i.e. to reduce the risk of heart attack in patients with a history of cardiovascular disease, but they are also very frequently used in primary prevention, to reduce the risk of cardiovascular events in the general population.
The drugs actually manage to normalize cholesterol and blood pressure in the majority of patients, which can lead people to believe that the situation is under control and that they no longer need to “pay attention” to what they eat or be physically active on a regular basis. This false sense of security associated with taking medication is well illustrated by the results of a recent study, conducted among 41,225 Finns aged 40 and over. By examining the lifestyle of this cohort, the researchers observed that people who started medication with statins or antihypertensive drugs gained more weight over the next 13 years, an excess weight associated with an 82% increased risk of obesity compared to people who did not take medication. At the same time, people on medication reported a slight decrease in their level of daily physical activity, with an increased risk of physical inactivity of 8%.
These findings are consistent with previous studies showing that statin users eat more calories, have a higher body mass index than those who do not take this class of drugs, and do less physical activity (possibly due to the negative impact of statins on muscles in some people). My personal clinical experience points in the same direction; I have lost count of the occasions when patients tell me that they no longer have to worry about what they eat or exercise regularly because their levels of LDL cholesterol have become normal since they began taking a statin. These patients somehow feel “protected” by the medication and mistakenly believe that they are no longer at risk of developing cardiovascular disease. This is unfortunately not the case: maintaining normal cholesterol levels is, of course, important, but other factors such as smoking, being overweight, sedentary lifestyle, and family history also play a role in the risk of cardiovascular disease. Several studies have shown that between one third and one half of heart attacks occur in people with LDL-cholesterol levels considered normal. The same goes for hypertension as patients treated with antihypertensive drugs are still 2.5 times more likely to have a heart attack than people who are naturally normotensive (whose blood pressure is normal without any pharmacological treatment) and who have the same blood pressure.
In other words, although antihypertensive and cholesterol-lowering drugs are very useful, especially for patients at high risk of cardiovascular events, one must be aware of their limitations and avoid seeing them as the only way to reduce the risk of cardiovascular events.
Superiority of lifestyle
In terms of prevention, much more can be done by addressing the root causes of cardiovascular disease, which in the vast majority of cases are directly linked to lifestyle. Indeed, a very large number of studies have clearly shown that making only five lifestyle changes can very significantly reduce the risk of developing these diseases (see Table below).
The effectiveness of these lifestyle habits in preventing myocardial infarction is quite remarkable, with an absolute risk drop to around 85% (Figure 1). This protection is seen both in people with adequate cholesterol levels and normal blood pressure and in those who are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease due to high cholesterol and hypertension.
Figure 1. Decreased incidence of myocardial infarction in men combining one or more protective factors related to lifestyle. The comparison of the incidences of infarction was carried out in men who did not have cholesterol or blood pressure abnormalities (upper figure, in blue) and in men with high cholesterol levels and hypertension (lower figure, in orange). Note the drastic drop in the incidence of heart attacks in men who adopted all 5 protective lifestyle factors, even in those who were hypertensive and hypercholesterolemic. Adapted from Åkesson (2014).
Even people who have had a heart attack in the past and are being treated with medication can benefit from a healthy lifestyle. For example, a study conducted by Canadian cardiologist Salim Yusuf’s group showed that patients who modify their diet and adhere to a regular physical activity program after a heart attack have their risk of heart attack, stroke and mortality reduced by half compared to those who do not change their habits (Figure 2). Since all of these patients were treated with all of the usual medications (beta blockers, statins, aspirin, etc.), these results illustrate how lifestyle can influence the risk of recurrence.
Figure 2. Effect of diet and exercise on the risk of heart attack, stroke, and death in patients with previous coronary artery disease. Adapted from Chow et al. (2010).
In short, more than three quarters of cardiovascular diseases can be prevented by adopting a healthy lifestyle, a protection that far exceeds that provided by drugs. These medications must therefore be seen as supplements and not substitutes for lifestyle. The development of atherosclerosis is a phenomenon of great complexity, which involves a large number of distinct phenomena (especially chronic inflammation), and no drug, however effective, will ever offer protection comparable to that provided by a healthy diet, regular physical activity, and maintenance of a normal body weight.