Heart to Heart: A Cardiology Blog

Guest Post: Heart-Healthy Cooking with Pantry Items

Post #11: February 1, 2022

Mother and child prepare a salad together

Is there a way to maintain safe social distancing and avoid numerous trips to the supermarket while still eating heart-healthy dishes? BID Needham dietitian Katie Hibert, MS, RD, LDN, says there is. Here, she shares ideas for your family.

What are some time-saving tips that you recommend before going to the supermarket?

First, plan for 2-3 meals with some overlapping ingredients so that when it comes time to do the prep work, you only have to do things once. When you find your recipes, make a grocery list. Add all the ingredients you will need to the list and any essential items you may be running low on. This is especially important today when you want to try to be in the store for as short as possible. Organize the list to follow the path you'll take as you walk around the store, grouping items together (i.e., produce, canned goods, rice, etc.).

As soon as you put your groceries away, wash your hands and wipe down counters. Try to do prep work as soon as possible so that food items are ready to go (like chopping vegetables, marinating meats, or washing/cutting fruit for snacks).

What pantry items do you recommend keeping on hand?

Several items provide the foundation for heart-healthy dishes. A good rule of thumb to follow: Combine one type of bean, with one type of vegetable, and one type of grain for a nutritious main dish.

The following choices have a long shelf life.

  • Any canned or dried beans (look for low- or no salt added)
  • Brown rice (try to avoid pre-seasoned rice, which may be high in sodium)
  • Quinoa
  • Tomato puree, diced tomatoes, or stewed tomatoes (look for low- or no salt added)
  • Unsalted nuts of any kind, including almonds, pecans, and walnuts
  • Frozen vegetables (plain varieties, without sauce added)
  • Low-sodium or unsalted chicken or vegetable broth
  • Olive oil
  • Dried herbs/spices, such as rosemary, basil, garlic powder, onion powder, thyme, pepper
  • Canned tuna, salmon or chicken, preferably packed in water (look for low- or no salt added)

How can you keep down salt intake when using pantry foods?

Always read the labels! Remember to look at the total “sodium” per serving and pay attention to how many servings you eat. For people following a low-sodium diet, try to keep sodium intake to a total of 1,500 - 2,000 milligrams per day.

When buying packaged foods, look for low-sodium or no salt added. When reading a nutrition label, look for less than 300 milligrams of sodium per serving. Thoroughly rinse canned beans or vegetables before cooking to remove excess salt.

How can children get involved at mealtime?

Children are never too young to be involved at mealtime. Whether it's mixing ingredients, chopping veggies, or putting it all together — don't underestimate what your child can do to help, but always be there to supervise. Try healthier alternatives to some of their favorite takeout items, like homemade pizza, air fryer chicken nuggets, or homemade ramen noodles.

Recipes from the Pantry

Vegetarian Chocolate Chili

Dark chocolate is the surprise ingredient in this heart-healthy chili. It is a rich source of epicatechin, an antioxidant that's been shown to help improve blood flow and cardiac function. Dark chocolate also contains cocoa flavanols, and research shows that eating chocolate products containing flavanols may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Serves 4

  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 28-oz. can tomato puree, no salt added
  • 1 15-oz. can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 15-oz. can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
  • 2 oz. dark chocolate
  • 1 Tbsp chili powder
  • 1 Tbsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

Brown onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until soft. Transfer to slow cooker.

Add diced tomatoes, tomato puree, black beans, and cannellini beans to a slow cooker. Mix all together. Stir in dark chocolate, chili powder, and cumin.

Cook on low for 4 hours. (Add water if you prefer chili to be thinner.) Serve garnished with fresh cilantro.

Nutrition: Total calories per serving: 185; Total fat: 5g; Saturated fat: 1.5g; Total cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium: 20mg; Total carbohydrates: 29g; Total fiber: 10g; Sugar: 4g; Protein: 8g

Quick & Easy Bean Salad

Serves 12

  • 1 15-oz can garbanzo beans, rinsed
  • 1 15-oz can kidney beans, rinsed
  • 1 15-oz can cannellini beans, rinsed
  • 1 15-oz can artichoke hearts, rinsed and chopped
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 tsp basil
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • Juice of 1 lemon

Drain and rinse all beans and artichoke hearts very well. Chop artichoke hearts into pieces. In a small bowl, combine herbs, oil and lemon juice and mix. Add to beans and artichoke hearts and toss.

Nutrition: Total calories 216; Total fat 3g; Saturated fat 0g; Cholesterol 0g; Sodium 20mg; Total carbohydrates 37g; Fiber 10g; Sugar 1g; Protein 11g

Quinoa with Sweet Potatoes & Beans

Serves 5

  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 1 sweet potato, peeled and diced
  • 1 ½ cups canned black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp chili powder

Bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add quinoa, lower heat and simmer about 20 minutes or until all of the water is absorbed. Preheat oven to 450°F. Put sweet potato in a bowl and coat with 1 tablespoon oil. Place in single layer on a cookie sheet and roast for about 15 minutes or until tender. Combine quinoa, sweet potato, beans and spices in a bowl.

Nutrition: Total calories 157; Total fat 4g; Saturated fat 0g; Cholesterol 0mg; Sodium 11mg; Total carbohydrate 25g; Dietary fiber 6.5g; Sugars 1.5g; Protein 7g


Previous Heart to Heart Posts

So, What's the Beef?

Post #10: February 11, 2020


Another article came out recently about the perils of eating meat and chicken. We have known for a while that meat is not good for your heart, and now we have more evidence. The article, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, is entitled “Associations of Processed Meat, Unprocessed Red Meat, Poultry, or Fish Intake With Incident Cardiovascular Disease and All-Cause Mortality.” Victor W. Zhong, PhD, and his group pooled together data collected from six different studies which included over 29,000 people followed for an average of 19 years. The mean age of the participants was 53. The scientists looked at how much red meat, processed meat (i.e., bacon, hot dogs and sausage—yum), chicken or fish (including shellfish) a person consumed each week. They normalized for everything they could think of (like smoking, other medical problems and exercise) and then looked at cardiac events and death rates across the groups.

Turns out, the more red meat, processed meat or chicken you eat, the more likely you are to have a first cardiac event (heart attack, heart failure, stroke or cardiac death). Fish did NOT cause any increase in cardiac events. In addition, higher intake of processed meat or unprocessed red meat, but not poultry or fish, was associated with a higher risk of death from any cause. It’s important to note that the increase in risk was small. So I don’t want you to think you will have a hamburger next weekend and immediately follow that up with a stroke for dessert. But it should give us some pause when making our food choices. In general, less animal, more vegetable.

I currently am on a roasted cauliflower and roasted broccoli kick. Sprinkle with olive oil and garlic (pre-minced in a jar saves on time), turn on the toaster oven to 400, and roast for 15 minutes. If you don’t have high blood pressure, sprinkle on a little salt and yum yum. Let’s be clear, it’s no sausage link, but it also comes without a side of guilt. And that’s worth something.

​Holiday Thoughts

Post #9: December 20, 2019


It’s a stressful time of year. I spent this last Friday night racing down to Cape Cod in our minivan, 4 children in tow, desperately trying to make the 6:30 ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. Anybody who has tried to get a ferry reservation for their car over to the Vineyard can attest: if you miss that reservation during a busy season, you might as well just turn around and drive home. Apparently the “Christmas in Edgartown” weekend is one of those times.

I was trying to send my children over to my parents (who live on Martha’s Vineyard) for the weekend, so that they could spend time with their grandparents, and my husband and I could enjoy a rare weekend alone. I was BEYOND DESPERATE to make that ferry.

Unfortunately, it was raining.

Unfortunately, I underestimated traffic on 128-S (Bless you if you commute south of Boston each day).

Unfortunately, the gas gauge on the minivan was just above the red line.

Unfortunately, when I finally bit the bullet and decided to stop for $10 of gas, a number of the aforementioned children decided they HAD to use the bathroom.

There was, of course, a line.

The stress I feel is normal, regular life stress. It is the stress of being busy and tired and of having a life with work and children and family. There are, however, other kinds of stress. In clinic, I sometimes bear witness to health problems that take a person out of their normal “stressful” lives and place them into an entirely new reality. A reality in which they would give anything to have their old stresses back.

And frankly, the longer I do this job, the more I understand that we all are only a phone call, or a symptom, or a test result away from an entirely different reality. One in which we would long for the simplicity and beauty of missed ferries and lost weekends away. So my wish for you this holiday season, is to embrace the beauty of your current reality, if you can. Hug your loved ones. Be kind to yourself. Try to take that weekend away with your partner.

Just remember to plan for the traffic on 128-S.

Breast Cancer & Your Heart

Post #8: November 12, 2019

Breast cancer is incredibly common, with 260,000 cases diagnosed in the United States each year. And while the risk of death from breast cancer continues to decline due to advances in screening and therapy, it still remains a very scary and very real diagnosis for many women (and a small number of men). The therapy for breast cancer can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and hormonal therapy. These combine to give breast cancer patients (all comers, all stages of breast cancer at diagnosis) a 90% five-year survival rate. Which means, there are a lot of breast cancer survivors out there.

Over the past number of years, medicine has begun to more clearly understand that some cancer therapies that are quite effective at treating cancer can also unfortunately have a negative effect on the heart. The two I’m going to focus on today are chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Now, the point here is not to create more anxiety for anybody who is undergoing or has undergone therapy for breast cancer. Coping with a cancer diagnosis is a private nightmare unto itself. Overwhelming fear, uncertainty, and disbelief are common. Fortunately, the oncologists treating you are aware of all the potential cardiac issues and will consult their cardiology colleagues if necessary. But, given breast cancer is largely a women’s disease, and the research on this topic is starting to explode across cardiology, I want you to know about it. Because somebody you know and love might one day be affected.


Some chemotherapy agents that are used in breast cancer (and are also used in other cancers), can cause a reduction in the pumping function of the heart and congestive heart failure (CHF). This affect appears to be dose related, and most breast cancer patients do not need the high doses that tend to cause these problems. Often, women get a screening echocardiogram (echo) prior to starting chemotherapy. An echo is an ultrasound of the heart which can estimate the heart’s current pumping function. This is important because if the heart function is depressed to begin with, some chemotherapies should not be used. Then, patients may get echocardiograms during the course of their chemotherapy to keep an eye on the heart’s pumping function as they get the drug. If the chemotherapy does cause a reduction in the heart’s function or if a patient might be at high risk of developing a cardiac toxicity, patients can be referred to a cardiologist who specializes in cardio-oncology (a brand new field within the past few years).

Radiation therapy

Many women get radiation as part of their breast cancer treatment. Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays (like medical x-rays on steroids) that destroy cancer cells. Unfortunately, the breasts (particularly the left breast), sits right in front of the heart. As a result, the heart does get hit by some amount of the radiation meant for the breast. The effect of radiation on the heart can be seen within the first five years of therapy and up to 20 years afterwards. Coronary artery disease can be caused if the radiation damages the arteries that supply the heart with blood. This problem can be seen many, many years after radiation therapy is completed. Similar to pre-eclampsia (see prior post), it is a problem that causes increased risk of heart disease many years later. So, if you have had breast cancer, if you have been treated with radiation or chemotherapy, make sure your primary care physician or your cardiologist knows all about your therapy.

I always put it right up at the top of the note so I remember each time I see that patient. “Treated for L sided breast cancer with surgery and radiation.” It just reminds me that this patient is higher risk than average and that I should keep my eyes and ears open for signs of heart problems developing. I should make sure all their other risk factors are well controlled—blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. I should be a bit more suspicious than usual about any symptoms that could point to a heart problem. Because you know what breast cancer survivors really don’t need? Heart problems.

Your heart and your breasts. Spread the word. We deserve to be educated.

Aspirin: To Take, Or Not To Take?

Post #7: September 18, 2019

You would think that a small thing like a baby aspirin wouldn’t be so complicated. I remember asking one of my attendings while I was a cardiology fellow, “So, who do we put on baby aspirin?” thinking I would get a two-line answer. What I got was a 30-page PowerPoint that he sent me on the topic of aspirin use in patients without a history of heart disease, with the punch line at the end, essentially being: “We’re not sure.”


Aspirin has gotten a lot of press over the past year. Now, the use of aspirin I’m talking about is in people who have never had a heart attack, never had a stroke or TIA (mini-stroke), and have never been diagnosed with cholesterol blockages in their arteries (these can be arteries anywhere—legs, heart, arms, neck, head). I’m talking about aspirin use in a healthy individual, without any of the above mentioned problems.

The most recent studies show that while low-dose aspirin does reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, it equally increases the risk of major bleeding in patients with no history of heart or vascular disease. This appears to hold true, even for patients with diabetes mellitus, who we consider at very high risk of developing heart disease. So, again, in situations where there is no clear answer, I like to talk with people about their individual risk of developing heart disease and their individual risk of bleeding. And, about what worries them most. A lot of people feel very strongly one way or the other about reducing their risk of heart disease, or conversely, about increasing their risk of bleeding. They have family history that worries them, or personal history that worries them. Your doctor should take this into account.

Now, let me be clear. None of this conversation applies to you if you have been diagnosed with coronary disease, peripheral vascular disease or have had a stroke. If you want to see my blood pressure skyrocket, come into clinic and tell me that you’ve listened to Dr. Oz talk about how bad aspirin is for you, so you decided to stop your aspirin two months ago. I will then start running through cardiology clinic in my high heels like a lunatic trying to find an aspirin to give you before your cardiac stent clots off and you have a massive heart attack right in front of me. This has happened multiple times this year since the aspirin story hit the general media (the part about me running around looking for aspirin. Nobody had a heart attack, thank goodness). Please don’t do that to your doctor! Of course, you should ALWAYS ask your physician before changing your medication.

And yes, aspirin counts as a medication. A small little pill, but very powerful, indeed.

Breathe In, Breathe Out

Post #6: August 14, 2019

I came across an interesting article in JACC: Journal of the American College of Cardiology entitled Positive Psychological Well-Being and Cardiovascular Disease. For many years, studies have evaluated and found that depression increases the likelihood that an individual develops heart disease. A similar correlation is seen with anger, anxiety and PTSD. But is the opposite true? Can having a positive mindset reduce your risk of heart disease? It appears that the answer is YES. Now, some people do tend to be a bit more optimistic than others. I for example, tend to immediately see all possible bad outcomes, while my husband is annoyingly optimistic. But, whatever your inborn optimism level, you CAN affect your level of psychological well-being to some degree. Here is one idea on how to get your heart and head in a good place: Mindfulness.


Mindfulness gets a lot of press, and for good reason. It has been shown to improve stress, reduce anxiety, and contribute to healthy eating and weight loss. It is a practice that involves paying attention to the present moment. If you have never tried it, there are many ways to dip your toe into a mindfulness routine. I personally like the Calm app, but there are many apps, videos, and community programs that you can explore. Also included in this category are mind-body techniques such as yoga, and tai chi.

I had a patient recently tell me she couldn’t figure out a good place to meditate because her house was so crazy. Her blood pressure had skyrocketed -- she was under an incredible amount of stress taking care of another family member who was very sick. She was struggling and wanted to return to her meditation practice but literally could not find a place where she could have five minutes of peace. I suggested her car. It’s quiet. It’s out of the weather. If she left or arrived somewhere early, she could sit in her car and meditate for five minutes.

You have to get creative, people! If you are going to take care of everyone around you (and I know that is what you are doing), you have to take care of yourself first. There is a reason they tell the adults on a plane to put on the oxygen mask first, and then put it on the kids. You are not helping anybody if you are gasping for air, feeling out of control. I also find small wisps of time for mindfulness in my car. It is frankly the only place I can be assured 5-10 minutes of quiet. Could it be slightly embarrassing if other physicians see me parked in the staff parking lot at 7:30 am, with the seat leaned back, taking deep breaths? Probably, but I wouldn’t know. My eyes are closed.

Think about where you could find five minutes for your mental wellness. Your heart and your mind will thank you.

Grit & Gratitude

Post #5: June 21, 2019

The 10K I signed up for many months ago is in two days. Oh. My.

Due to my organization injury (see post #4), I did see my orthopedist friend, and she recommended physical therapy (PT) for my hip. PT was great and the pain is now gone, but I have not been able to train for this race as I had imagined I would (having to take three weeks off from running in the middle of my eight-week training plan). My husband asked whether he should bring the kids to the race to watch me. I thought, “No, bad idea. I’m going to be sucking wind and running super slow. Don’t need the kids to see that.” And then I realized…wait. That is EXACTLY what I want my kids to see. I want them to see the struggle. I want them to see me pushing through and (God willing) finishing, even if my time is slow and I’m at the back of the pack. They saw me doing my physical therapy exercises. They saw me heading out for runs on Saturday mornings. They should see that even if I’m not perfect, even if I’m not very good, I’m out there. I’m hustling. I’ve got some grit.

Update: June 24, 2019 (one day after the 10K)

The kids did not attend, solely because waking them up at 6:30 am and driving them into Boston to watch the race seemed fairly unappealing for a Sunday morning. I did get myself up at 6:15, left the house by 6:45, and drove into Boston thinking “why on earth did I think it was a good idea to sign up for this race. I have enough going on. Why do I always need to complicate things?”

The weather was stunning: Light breeze, blue skies, 67 degrees, and sunny.

Now, I am not a regular road racer. In fact, this was really my first road race. I did run track in college, but that was a solid 20 years ago, and I was a sprinter. I never ran anything that couldn’t be done in under a minute. For real, that was my motto.

On my way walking to the course, I saw lots of people jogging around the streets of Boston, ostensibly “warming up” before the race. It was all I could do not to yell out, “Hey people, save your energy! We are about to have to run for 6.2 miles.” Clearly, no warm up needed for me that morning.

About 10 minutes before race time, all the runners were prompted to get into these big corrals set up and down Beacon Street, according to the pace we thought we would be running. I noticed a number of things as I found my way to the area for runners in the 9:00-9:59 minute mile pace.

  1. Lots of women wear lots of makeup to run in races. And not just a little lip gloss, I’m talking full faced foundation, mascara, lipstick, blush. If I do this again, I’m going to have to invest in some sweat proof make-up, clearly.
  2. I forgot both a hat and sunblock (oh well).
  3. I should have gone to the bathroom BEFORE I got to the race site (there were about 5,000 people lined up for the porta-pottys).


As I stood there in my corral, among thousands of people all packed together, waiting for the race to start, I noted a general sense of happiness in the crowd. Now, I was standing with a whole bunch of people who were decidedly NOT going to win the race. We were just there to run for ourselves. To see if, in fact, we could run for 6.2 miles in a row. And as I looked around, I noticed the young people and the older people, the father/daughter pairs, and the groups of friends, the people with grey hair, the people with knee braces, the people with makeup, and the people with tattoos. As I looked at all these people, I began feeling a sense of gratitude. It surprised me, actually. I am not somebody overcome with gratitude on a regular basis. And I certainly wasn’t expecting it while waiting to run this race, considering how much I had been dreading it. But at that moment, I WAS grateful. Grateful that my legs work. Grateful that my heart works. I was grateful to have the opportunity to be outside on a beautiful day and celebrate the ability of my body to move, with the company of 10,000 strangers.

And that feeling of gratitude carried me through the 6.2 miles. And I finished. And I was proud. So proud, in fact, that I wore my participant medal around my neck all day long, to the absolute embarrassment of my husband and delight of my kids. They took turns wearing it too.

So I encourage you to find a way to celebrate your body. Celebrate the health that you have today. Find joy in motion and strength and sweat. Wear your participant medal, and be proud.

Pregnancy & Your Heart

Post #4

Hello, ladies. First, a quick update on my 10K training for those of you who missed my earlier posts—I have signed up for my first 10K, scheduled end of June. I have sustained a slight injury. From running? Oh no, this is my first organization injury. I love organizing, and in a fit of organizing my kids’ books, I decided to carry a laundry basket full of them down to our basement. Unfortunately, I missed the last step of our basement stairs and pulled my left hip flexor. But never fear, a little ice, ibuprofen and rest, and I’ll be back at it next week, I’m sure of it! Either that, or I’ll be visiting my favorite orthopedic surgeon friend—she will know what to do.

This month, I’d like to address the topic of your heart and pregnancy. Most women will have healthy pregnancies without complications and no need to worry. I am not writing about this to raise panic about pregnancy (which frankly, is stressful enough in the healthiest of situations). But, some women have health issues even before becoming pregnant that require careful attention to prevent complications. Some others develop health issues during pregnancy that can put them at higher risk to develop heart disease later on in life. Historically, cardiology, as a field, has not paid much attention to this portion of the population (pregnant women). But we are finally coming around and have recognized that we have an important role to play in helping this amazing group of patients.


What should you talk to your doctor about? Well, even before getting pregnant, you should talk to your internist or ob/gyn about any health issues you currently manage, particularly high blood pressure (HBP) and diabetes. These are both very common issues that become more frequent as people get older. And as women in general are having babies later in life than we used to, these problems tend to be more common for pregnant women. You want to make sure that these health issues (and any others you may have, like thyroid disease for example) are under EXCELLENT control even before getting pregnant. You want that little baby to be developing in the best environment possible from day one, and that means normal blood sugars and normal blood pressures to start (or as close as you can get!).

Some women have a history of congenital heart disease. That means they were born with an abnormality in their heart that has been present since their own birth. If that includes you, you should make sure that your cardiologist (or your internist, if you don’t have a cardiologist) knows about any plans you have to become pregnant and can talk to you about whether that is no big deal or poses some health risks to you or your baby AND how those risks can be managed by your healthcare team (meaning at minimum, your ob/gyn and a cardiologist).

A small percentage of women will develop a problem during pregnancy or sometimes right after pregnancy known as preeclampsia or pregnancy-induced hypertension. The American Heart Association considers these disorders major risk factors for the development of cardiovascular disease including stroke, heart failure and coronary artery disease. Your future risk of developing one of these problems seems to be higher if you have more severe preeclampsia, if you had to deliver your baby early, or if you had preeclampsia during multiple pregnancies. If you know someone who had preeclampsia or high blood pressure develop during their pregnancy, it might not be a bad idea for them to bring this up with their internist, ob/gyn or cardiologist, so they can talk about how it affects their risk of developing heart disease later in life.

The issue of heart disease in pregnant women is gaining much more attention in recent years, both by cardiologist and by obstetricians. At the beginning of May 2019, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) released a document stating that “cardiovascular disease is now the leading cause of death in pregnant women and women in the postpartum period.” They go on to lay out a description of the issue, how to best identify women with heart disease prior to pregnancy and during pregnancy, and how to care for these women with heart disease. It was co-authored by Janet Wei, MD, a liaison for the American College of Cardiology, whom I applaud for her work in this area. Both obstetricians and cardiologists have tuned in and are focused on the treatment and prevention of heart disease in pregnant women, and that shift is good for us all.


  1. Pregnancy and Heart Disease. AOCG Practice Bulletin No. 212. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Obstetrics and Gynecology: 2019;133:e320-56.
Cholesterol: Know Your Numbers, Know Your Risk

Post #3

Hello, team. First, a small update since the last post. I have signed up for my FIRST 10K! I’ve never run a 10K before (only 5Ks in the past, all as fundraisers for my kids elementary school). I’ve told my kids about it, which means I have to come through! What have you decided to do for yourself and your health? Who are you getting healthy for?

So far, we have discussed two major ways to reduce your risk of developing heart disease:

  1. Control your blood pressure
  2. Get regular exercise

Today, we’ll tackle another:

3 . Know your cholesterol numbers and what they mean for your overall risk.

I know, I know, as my kids would say “Mom, that’s BOR-ING.” Don’t close the browser window yet. High cholesterol is another major risk factor for heart disease. As the smart, strong woman I know you are, you should know what your cholesterol is, and what those numbers mean for your long term risk of heart attack and stroke.

The thing that trips up most people about cholesterol, is that everyone’s goals for cholesterol can be different. Yes, this makes it slightly more complicated, but let me walk you through it.

First, cholesterol is reported as 4 different numbers:

  1. Total cholesterol: this takes into account all three values of cholesterol/fat listed below.
  2. Triglycerides: another type of fat (not cholesterol). Having high triglycerides can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
  3. HDL: Good cholesterol. Having higher HDL seems to reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.
  4. LDL: Bad cholesterol. Higher levels of LDL increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.

The goals for your individual cholesterol all depend on your PERSONAL risk of developing heart disease over time. That risk depends on a whole lot of factors—some of which you control (exercise, blood pressure, weight, smoking) and some which you don’t (family history, diabetes, your age).

The general rule of thumb is that you want the triglycerides and LDL to be low (and lower is better) and the HDL to be high. Most of the medications we use for cholesterol are focused on lowering the LDL, because in lots of scientific studies, lowering the LDL is how we can reduce people’s risk of heart attack and stroke.

Your doctor will take your cholesterol numbers and use them along with age, smoking history, current blood pressure, and other medical problems, to calculate your risk of heart disease and stroke over 10 years and potentially over your lifetime. Then, depending on how high that risk is, she will help you figure out what you should do with your cholesterol to lower that risk.

Let’s take the following woman and her cholesterol profile as an example of what your doctor could do to evaluate your risk of heart disease.

A 41-year-old female cardiologist (one guess as to who we are talking about) without diabetes, or high blood pressure wants to evaluate her risk of developing heart disease or stroke. She has never smoked.

Her cholesterol is: total cholesterol: 198, triglycerides: 106, HDL: 49, LDL: 128

Her blood pressure is 118/62 (this is normal).

Now because she has never been diagnosed with heart disease and has never had a stroke, she can use the ACC/AHA risk calculator, plug in her numbers and demographics and get a risk score.

Based on the ACC/AHA risk calculator (available online for anybody who wants to use it—link below), her 10year risk of developing heart disease or stroke is 0.6%. Woohoo! Interestingly, this is the first time I have ever done that calculation on myself!

Based on such a low risk, she should continue to exercise and eat a healthy diet to prevent her LDL cholesterol from going up further, but there is no reason for her to start on medication for cholesterol at this point in time.

Now, what if my risk had come out much higher because of a higher age and/or a history of high blood pressure, but with the same cholesterol numbers? Let’s say I had a 15% risk of heart attack or stroke over the next ten years. Then my doctor and I would have a discussion about what else we could do (like using medication) to bring my cholesterol down further in order to lower my overall risk.

So that is why (with some exceptions) no single cholesterol result is necessarily good or bad. Any one number could be “fine” or “high” depending on the total risk.

If I can calculate my 10-year risk of heart disease and stroke, so can you. So get into your primary care doctor’s office to review your risk and discuss what can and should be done to mitigate that risk. You deserve to take care of yourself. You deserve to put your health first. You deserve to know your risk. Find our your cholesterol numbers, and find out what they mean for you.

I’m getting mine checked again later this spring (PCP appointment made?—check).

Links to calculate your risk of developing heart disease or stroke. Both contain the same risk calculator, the information is just presented somewhat differently in each.

ACC: http://tools.acc.org/ASCVD-Ris...

AHA: https://ccccalculator.ccctrack...

Investing in Yourself

Post #2

One question I ask almost every patient is “So, what are you doing for exercise these days?”


I generally get one of three responses. Sometimes, a patient will respond with, “Well, still walking/running 3-4 miles 4 days a week, doing yoga once a week and doing some weights and resistance training twice a week.”

If that sounds like you, I will say the same thing I say to those patients: Awesome work. Keep it up. See you at the next blog post. More often, I hear “Well, I was walking pretty regularly last spring, but then this summer my mother started having a lot of health problems, and I needed to go home to take care of her.” Or, “My daughter got married and it threw off my whole schedule, and I haven’t really gotten back on track yet.” Or, “I’ve had a really hard time with an ongoing divorce and I just can’t find the time to focus on myself.” The third response that is also pretty common is “Still not exercising. I know I should be, but I’m just lazy.” If any of these sound familiar, read on.

After reading piles of medical articles about the benefits of exercise and hearing my patients talk about what works and what doesn’t, I have come to a few conclusions:

  1. You need to invest in yourself.
  2. Anything to can do to move your body is better than nothing.
  3. Getting with the guidelines is doable.
  4. You were made to move.

There are times that life throws us curve balls and times when we cannot figure out how we can possibly fit one more thing (like exercise) into our lives. But if your “this is a crazy time” time of life seems to be stretching out for months and then years, it’s time to restructure, rethink, and reinvest in yourself. Exercise is one of the most powerful things you can do to reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke. It is (almost) entirely within your control. And if thinking about health risks in the abstract is not compelling, exercise gives immediate health benefits in terms of stress reduction, improved stamina during the day, and better sleep at night. Patients often ask me how I manage to have four kids and be a cardiologist. I tell them—I work out a lot. My current favorite way to break a sweat includes anything with a 90s hip-hop sound track and an instructor who yells tons of encouragement. My husband and I both work out a lot, alternating who gets up at 5 am to go to the gym, and who stays home to get the kids off to school.

When figuring out how to move that body of yours, do not let perfect be the enemy of good. In fact, do not let good be the enemy of ok. You do not need to be training for a marathon, or going to the intimidating spin class with strobe lights and loud disco music to be helping yourself and your body. You do need to spend some time finding activities that you enjoy and trying to do them consistently. Also, if you have not been moving your body much, start slow! Try 10 minutes a day of exercise, most days of the week and then add another 5 minutes to that each week until you reach 30 minutes at a time. The most important part is making this a regular part of your life. (for a resource on habit change, see below for a book that I have found helpful).

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of “moderate” exercise each week. You can do that in 10–15 minute chunks, 30 minutes for 5 days a week, 75 minutes each weekend day, or whatever combination you come up with. Do what works FOR YOU. Exercise does not require a gym membership to the place with the eucalyptus scented towels and marble locker room (although that place does sound amazing). It requires a pair of comfortable shoes and stepping outside. Walking is a fantastic form of exercise, particularly for anybody just starting up a regular program. When the weather is bad, walking at the mall before the stores open up is also essentially free and has the added advantage of being weather protected.


Guess what other activities count as moderate exercise? Gardening?—yup. Doubles tennis, water aerobics, ballroom dancing (as one of my patients loves to do)—all count. In addition, add two days of strength training per week and you can really pat yourself on the back. Women start to lose muscle mass around age 40, and weights and/or resistance training will help add back that lost muscle. Goodbye flabby arms, hello sculpted triceps! And bonus, all of these forms of exercise will help lower your risk of heart attack and stroke when done regularly.

Whether you want to call it evolution or God’s divine plan for womankind, the fact is, we were born to move. Modern day life has brought us further away from movement with our computers and our desk jobs and our sitting-in-car-line-at-school-pickup for 30 minutes. But the “I don’t have time/everyone else comes first/I’m not good at exercise” mentality is not helping you. So leave that nonsense behind. I promise you: your body WANTS to move. Most of us have the great privilege of being ABLE to move. We GET to jog. We GET to lift. We GET to make ourselves proud. So, hold your head up high, turn up that music, and go break a sweat.


Rubin, Gretchen. Better Than Before: mastering the habits of our everyday lives. Random House Inc, 2015.


Blood Pressure: Put it on the list

Post #1


In my time as a cardiologist (about seven years and counting), I have seen many women ignore their own health needs because they are too busy taking care of others around them. They have a sick parent, or a sick spouse, whose needs they put before their own. I have literally seen (in the most extreme), women ignore their own heart attacks, or their own worsening heart failure, because they are pushing and pushing to keep the other members of their family going. It is because of this observation that I decided to start writing this blog.

I know what it is like. You have a list. A really, really long list, full of things you have to do. Things for your kids, your spouse, your house, or your parents – or maybe for your spouse’s parents, your dog, your parents’ dog (who you are currently taking care of), just to name a few. But where are you on this list? If you are anywhere, you are most likely somewhere down towards the bottom. More than likely, you are not on your list at all. I get it. I have the same list, and I’m not on my list either. But I should be. And you should be on your own list, too. Here’s what to put on your list this week, and why it’s so important.

  1. Check your blood pressure.

I know, this sounds incredibly boring. But here’s the thing: knowing your blood pressure (BP), while boring, is incredibly important. It’s the first thing almost any physician wants to know about you. Why? Because it affects every single part of your body. Heart? Check. Kidneys? Check. Brain? Check. Lungs? Check. (I could go on…) The tricky thing about blood pressure is that you won’t know if it’s abnormal unless you get it checked. Let me say that again. You won’t know if it’s abnormal unless you get it checked. We don’t feel high blood pressure. In fact, unless your BP is severely high, you won’t have any symptoms at all for years and years. But all those organs I just mentioned? They will know. And over time, they won’t work as well because of it.

I am going to guess that most of you don’t know your BP. I’m guessing this because up until 4 weeks ago I didn’t even know mine. I hadn’t had it checked in about two years. To make matters worse, I actually happen to have a risk factor for developing high blood pressure (HBP). During my pregnancy with my twins, I developed pre-eclampsia, which basically means I developed high blood pressure at the end of my pregnancy, and had to deliver a little bit early as a result. Fortunately, after delivering, my BP went back to normal. This condition puts me at risk for developing HBP later in life. So what I’m saying is, I should know better.

The good news? Getting your BP checked is pretty easy these days. (Hint: you don’t even have to go to your doctor). Last week, I was in my local Wegmans and saw a blood pressure cuff set up along the wall by the pharmacy. Without exaggeration, it would take less than 90 seconds of your time. You can pop into a surprisingly convenient number of places that are likely part of your daily travels: the pharmacy, grocery store, fire station, senior center. More advice? Normal BP is less than 120 for the top number (systolic) AND less than 80 for the bottom number (diastolic). If either of those is high, then it is time to go in and see your doctor. I promise it won’t take that long. You deserve to know your BP numbers and understand what they mean. You deserve to be on your list. At the top.

If you want learn more about HBP, this is a great and very readable site published by the American College of Cardiology with more information on high blood pressure: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure.


Anne Riley, MD, FACC, is a cardiologist at the CardioVascular Institute at BIDMC and BID Needham. She practices predominantly in Needham and lives in Wellesley with her husband and four children. She is an instructor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and president of the BID Needham Medical Staff.

The CardioVascular Institute (CVI) at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital–Needham is staffed by highly trained Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians, each with clinical privileges at both BID–Needham and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Each is here to provide you with care for all heart and vascular conditions.

To schedule an appointment at the CVI in Needham, please contact 781-453-7750.

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