Heart disease kills more Americans every year than any other ailment. In fact, combined with stroke, heart-related disease accounts for one out of every three deaths in the United States.
One of the main causes of circulatory system-related deaths such as heart attacks and strokes is a phenomenon known as arterial stiffness.
What is Arterial Stiffness?
In short, over time, the arteries in the human body lose their elasticity, which makes it more challenging for the heart to receive and pump blood to other parts of the body. And by more challenging, we mean arterial stiffness makes the heart work much harder to pump blood.
You see, our hearts and arteries pump blood in synchronized, timed waves (a mechanism referred to by cardiologists as pulse wave velocity or PWV). Flexible arteries allow the heart to push blood through arteries to the rest of the body with low PWV. When portions of arteries stiffen, the pulse wave velocity is disrupted and intensified throughout the entire circulatory system (effectively raising blood pressure). In other words, stiffened arteries mess with the heart’s timing and force the heart to pump more aggressively to get back on time and on quota in delivering blood to the rest of the body.
Over time, arterial stiffness exacts a significant toll on the strength of the heart. Eventually it becomes overwhelmed with the extra effort required to compensate for the irregular pulse waves sent by weakened arteries and stops. Permanently.
What Causes Arterial Stiffness?
A certain amount of arterial stiffness occurs from the natural process of the aging of the arterial wall tissues, so all of us have some level of arterial stiffness no matter how clean a life we lead. That said, a significant amount of arterial stiffness occurs as a result of risky behaviors such as a high fat diet, sedentary lifestyle, heavy alcohol use and prolonged exposure to cigarette smoke. These risky lifestyle behaviors often result in high blood pressure, atherosclerosis (a buildup of plaque/fat/cholesterol in arteries) and diabetes.
But here’s the good news: You can notably reverse arterial stiffness!
What Causes Arterial Stiffness?
An amazing feature of the human body is that it wants to feel better and heal, and it will immediately start to repair itself if you just provide a little help.
Doctors most often provide this help in the form of prescription medication. In the case of arterial stiffness, blood pressure medication and cholesterol lowering drugs have shown some ability to also improve arterial stiffness. For example, a number of studies have shown that statin drugs prescribed for lowering cholesterol are effective in reducing arterial stiffness by about 10%, which is significant in cardiology researchers’ minds. The downside, however, is that statin drugs sometimes produce unpleasant side effects and a few downright dangerous ones.
If your doctor suspects you have significant arterial stiffness, he or she will also likely counsel you to take a hard look at your risky lifestyle behaviors, e.g., stop smoking, reduce alcohol consumption, switch to a low fat/low salt diet and exercise more. This is good advice, but it can be a bit overwhelming to adopt all of these lifestyle changes at once, so many people don’t unless they have a very powerful motivator, such as surviving a heart attack or stroke.
So if you’re going to pick one to start with, which one these lifestyle changes has the deepest research support for reducing arterial stiffness?
The answer is exercise. A number of recent studies have examined the benefit of cardiovascular/aerobic exercise or strength resistance training among people of varying health status and age. For example:
- One recent study showed that a low-intensity, 10-week resistance training program reduced arterial stiffness as measured by pulse wave velocity by 7% in young adults.
- Another study among people with chronic kidney disease (a common complication associated with diabetes) showed a 12% reduction in arterial stiffness/PWV as a result of a 12-month moderate-intensity cardiovascular/aerobic exercise program.
- Yet another recent study revealed a 10% reduction in arterial stiffness/PWV among older moderate-to-severe COPD patients participating in a four-week moderate-intensity cardiovascular/aerobic exercise program.
- In a study involving older adults with type-2 diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, those who underwent a three-month vigorous cardiovascular/aerobic exercise program experienced a 20% drop in PWV in forearm arteries and a 10% drop in arterial stiffness from upper leg arteries.
There are more studies showing similar ranges of improvement, but we think you get the point. Whether you’re young and healthy, or older with a chronic health condition, an ongoing aerobic and strength training exercise program can provide meaningful improvement in arterial stiffness.
Don't Wait Until It's Too Late
If you think you may be at risk for arterial stiffness, ask your doctor to order an arterial stiffness test. These tests measure the stiffness of the arteries by assessing your pulse wave velocity in comparison with PWV levels established over the years that indicate flexible arteries versus hardened ones.
There are different methodologies used to determine arterial stiffness, but most of the tests are simple to administer and non-invasive. Typically, a sensor is strapped to your ankle, forearm, upper leg or neck and it detects/reports the time it takes for a pulse wave to go from one part of your body to another.