Sci-fi worthy medical advances can give your ticker superpowers
By: Holly C. Corbett
These days your refrigerator can tell you when the milk’s gone bad, your car sounds an alarm before you back into the neighbor’s Mazda, and your phone can double as every electronic device except a microwave oven. The future is now, so when it comes to keeping your most vital organ healthy, low-grade medical technology just shouldn’t cut it. (If Captain Kirk had a coronary on the U.S.S. Enterprise, do you think he’d let the doctor crack open his chest for surgery? Guess again, earthling.)
According to the American Heart Association, more than one in three guys will get hit with heart disease in their lifetime—that’s 37.9 million American men. Thankfully, docs are concocting some far-out technological advances for repairing a damaged heart—and even preventing an attack in the first place. Check out the latest heart builders, and what you can do right now to tune up your ticker.
Heart Saver No. 1: A shot that prevents heart disease
How it works: Getting stuck with a needle is a small price to pay for protection against cholera, measles, and tetanus, and now scientists are working on pumping out a vaccine that may ward off a heart attack. People with low levels of a natural antibody known as anti-PC are at higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, according to the journal Atherosclerosis. These particular antibodies may work by blocking heart-hurting inflammation caused by LDL, a.k.a. “bad” cholesterol, or by thwarting plaque deposits from forming on artery walls that may eventually rupture and lead to an attack, says lead study author Johan Frostegard, M.D., Ph.D., from Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. He thinks the immunization could become available in as little as three to four years.
What you can do now: “Slash your risk of heart disease naturally by following the Christmas diet,” says Randall Zusman, M.D., director of the hypertension program at the Mass General Hospital Heart Center in Boston. “Try filling up on red and green foods such as peppers, tomatoes, spinach, and broccoli, and cutting back on starchy white foods such as chips and pasta, to help lower bad cholesterol and prevent plaques from taking hold in your arteries.”
Heart Saver No. 2: A robot that replaces open-heart surgery
How it works: Cracking open your chest for bypass surgery may sound as barbaric as getting a lobotomy in the near future. Robotics-assisted cardiac surgery is being performed in operating rooms around the world, where an M.D. sits at a console and controls three mechanical arms that do the heavy lifting. It works by creating four tiny holes in the patient’s chest and using an endoscopic camera to help the surgeon direct surgical instruments held by tiny robotic arms. “Traditional surgery requires a heart-lung machine to stop the heart and may cause damage, but robotic arms are steadier than human hands so you can operate while it’s still beating,” says Bob Kiaii, M.D., a heart surgeon at the London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario, Canada, who does robotics-assisted surgery 85 percent of the time. “Plus, this technique uses smaller incisions so you don’t have to saw through the breastbone.” That means patients can recover in as little as two to four weeks, compared to the three months or more it takes with traditional surgery.
What you can do now: Lower your blood pressure to keep your arteries strong, so you’re less likely to need a doc (or robot) to do a bypass. High blood pressure wears down artery walls, but study participants given relaxation training were twice as likely to go off at least one of their high blood pressure meds as those receiving lifestyle counseling alone, reports the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. “To do it yourself, simply focus on a word, color, or thought—such as your favorite vacation spot—for at least 10 minutes a day,” says Dr. Zusman, study co-author. “You’ll eventually train your brain to calm down, which releases substances in the body that open up blood vessels and relieve pressure on arteries.”
Heart Saver No. 3: A patch that heals a damaged heart
How it works: You may be able to mend a broken heart after an attack, thanks to a patch placed on damaged areas that regenerates cardiac cells and boosts pumping performance. Studies on rats who suffered a heart attack showed a 100-fold increase in the number of heart cells and 16 percent boost in pumping ability when treated with a gel-like patch containing a natural substance called periostin, which stimulates cells to divide, according to Nature Medicine. “When you have a heart attack, muscle cells die and can’t normally be replaced,” says Dr. Zusman. “But stimulating the formation of new tissues by applying this patch, say, through a needle and catheter, may someday help replace heart transplants—or even avoid heart attacks in the first place.” More studies on humans need to be done before such a patch hits hospitals.
What you can do now: You already know cardio does more than bust a beer gut—it also strengthens your heart. But you could actually damage heart cells by exercising in high-traffic areas, since new research shows air pollution not only induces asthma, but may also trigger heart attacks. In fact, ultra-fine air pollutants found in car exhaust may pass through your blood stream to injure heart cells and hinder pumping ability, according to a new study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Steer clear of car exhaust for optimum heart health by finding a greener path to hike, bike, and jog.