Vascular Specialist Group Duesseldorf Germany

Prof. Ralf Kolvenbach M.D., Ph.D.,FEBVS

  • 1975 – 1981: Medical School: Heinrich-Heine University of Duesseldorf

  • 1981 – 1985: General Surgery, GI Surgery , Trauma Surgery, Urology and Orthopedic Surgery – Residency: KMR – Hospital Duesseldorf

  • 1982: MD Thesis, Clinic of Cardiovascular Surgery University of Düsseldorf

  • 1982: Visiting Fellow Department of Cardiovascular Surgery Columbia
    Presbyterian Hospital and Medical School, New York

  • 1986 – 1987: Department of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery, Pediatric Cardiac and Cardiac Transplantation Service, Prof John Kirklin University of Alabama, Birmingham Ala. ,USA

  • 2.1. 1987 – 31. 3. 1988: Senior Resident Department of Cardiac Surgery, University of Duesseldorf

  • 01.04.1988 – 1992: Resident and Lecturer Department of
    Vascular Surgery and Renal Transplant Service University of Duesseldorf

  • 1992 – 1994: Assistant Professor and Attending Surgeon Department of
    Vascular Surgery and Renal Transplantation University of Düsseldorf

  • 1993: PhD. Thesis Surgical Faculty University of Duesseldorf, Department of Cardiovascular Surgery

  • 01.01.1994 – 28.02.1995: Attending Vascular Surgeon Department of Surgery, Traumatology and GI Surgery and Department of Radiology Citizen Hospital, Stuttgart Germany

  • 1995 – 02.2021: Director Department of Vascular Surgery, Endovascular Therapy and Phlebology Augusta Hospital and Catholic Clinics Group Duesseldorf

  • Since March 2021: Director Department of Vascular Surgery and Endovascular Therapy Sana Hospital Group Duesseldorf and Rhine Ruhr Area

  • Since 2002: Medical Director Venous Outpatient Clinic ( CAT GmbH) Duesseldorf

  • 2003 -2005: Visiting Professor St Mary ́s Hospital London in regular intervals by invitation
    Prof. N.Cheshire and Prof . A. Darzi

  • 2010: Honorary Professor Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital Academic Teaching Hospital University of Beijing, China, Department of Cardiovascular Surgery

  • 2014: Professor and Co Chair Allied Health Profession Program Fliedner University Duesseldorf

  • Since 2004: Visiting and Consultant Vascular Surgeon Department of Vascular Surgery Carmel Medical Centre Haifa since 2017 academic teaching responsibilities Hadassah University Hospital Jerusalem (together with Prof. Karmeli )

Board Certification

German Board of General Surgery
German Board of Vascular Surgery
German Board of Phlebology
Endovascular Specialist of the German Society of Vascular Surgery.
Fellow of the European Board of Vascular Surgery (FEBVS)


Fellow of the German Board of General Surgery
Fellow of the German Board of Vascular Surgery
Fellow of the German Board of Phlebology
Fellow of the Max Plank Society of Science
Full member of the European Society of Vascular Surgery
Member Central European Vascular Surgical Society
Honorary member Medical Society University of Parma
Founding Member International Society of Vascular Surgery
Royal Society of Medicine

Faculty by invitation Course (VEITH)

Vascular Intervention Course ( VEITH ) November New York since 2005
Leipzig Interventional Course ( LINC ) since 2009
Charing Cross Conference London
Further numerous conferences in Europe and Asia

Member of the Editorial Board:

The Journal of Vascular Surgery until 2012
Journal of Cardiovascular Surgery

Journal of Endovascular Therapy
Journal of Cytology and Cell Therapy
Journal of Vascular Surgery
Journal of Venous Disease
Surgical Endoscopy

What exactly does Arteriosclerosis mean

  1. Arteriosclerosis is a disease that affects the arteries and can lead to heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems. It’s a slowly progressive condition that affects the walls of the arteries, making them stiffer and narrower.
  2. There are many different symptoms of arteriosclerosis, but the most common are:
  3. -Dizziness
  4. -Nausea
  5. -Vomiting
  6. -Fatigue
  7. -Chest pain
  8. -Shortness of breath
  9. -Risk of a heart attack
  10. There are many different treatment options available, but the best way to find out what might work best for you is to speak with your doctor.

2. The stages of arteriosclerosis

Arteriosclerosis is a progressive disease that affects the blood vessels. The disease is characterized by the buildup of plaque on the inside of the arteries. As plaque builds up, it can reduce the flow of blood and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.
There are five stages of arteriosclerosis:

1. Atherosclerosis. In atherosclerosis, fatty deposits known as plaques form on the inner wall of the arteries.
2. Stenosis. In stenosis, the arteries narrow due to the build-up of plaque.
3. Restenosis. Restenosis is the process by which the narrowed artery becomes reopened and allows more blood to flow.
4. Arteriosclerosis obliterans. In arteriosclerosis obliterans, the arteries become so scarred and blocked that they can no longer carry blood.
5. Coronary artery disease. In coronary artery disease, the disease has progressed to the point where the arteries that supply the heart with blood are blocked.

3. How arteriosclerosis causes damage to the arteries

Arteriosclerosis is a disorder of the blood vessels that causes them to become stiff and narrow, restricting the flow of blood. As a result, the heart has to work harder to pump blood throughout the body and the oxygen-rich blood is unable to reach the tissues as quickly as it should.

There are many different types of arteriosclerosis and the symptoms can vary from person to person. However, the main symptoms are a combination of peripheral vascular disease (PVD) and coronary heart disease (CHD).

PVD is the most common type of arteriosclerosis and it affects the smaller blood vessels in the legs, arms, and feet. It can cause pain, swollen feet, and difficulty walking.

CHD is the most common type of heart disease and it affects the larger blood vessels in the heart and the arteries that supply the heart with blood. It can cause chest pain, heart attack, or stroke.

There is currently no cure for arteriosclerosis and the best way to treat it is to prevent it from happening in the first place. The best way to prevent PVD is to maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, and avoid smoking.

4. The symptoms of arteriosclerosis

Arteriosclerosis is a condition in which the arteries become inflamed and stiff. The symptoms of arteriosclerosis can vary depending on what part of the body the arteries are located in. However, the most common symptoms of arteriosclerosis are chest pain, shortness of breath, and difficulty breathing.

Arteriosclerosis can be treated with a variety of treatments, including medications, surgery, and lifestyle changes. Treatment options vary depending on the severity of the arteriosclerosis and the individual’s symptoms. Some treatments are more effective than others, and each person’s experience with treatment will be different.

It is important to seek professional help if you are experiencing any of the symptoms of arteriosclerosis. You may be able to improve your quality of life by seeking treatment and understanding your symptoms.

5. The treatment options for arteriosclerosis

Arteriosclerosis is a condition in which the walls of the blood vessels become thick and stiff. This can lead to a number of problems, including heart attacks, stroke, and even death.

There are a number of treatment options available for arteriosclerosis, and the best option depends on the symptoms and severity of the condition. Some of the most common treatment options include:

– Chelation therapy: This involves using drugs or supplements to remove toxins from the body.

– Angioplasty: This involves using a balloon to open up the narrowed blood vessels.

– stents: These are mesh tubes that are inserted into the blood vessels to keep them open.

– Surgery: This is usually the last resort for arteriosclerosis.

There are also a number of lifestyle changes that can help to prevent or reduce the symptoms of arteriosclerosis. These include:

– Exercise: This can help to increase the flow of blood and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

– Diet: This can help to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and obesity.

– Smoking cessation: This can help to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

– Reducing stress: This can help to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of arteriosclerosis, please consult your doctor. He or she will be able to provide you with information on the most appropriate treatment options for you.

6. Living with arteriosclerosis

Arteriosclerosis is a progressive disease that affects the blood vessels in the body. This can cause a narrowing of the arteries, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
The symptoms of arteriosclerosis vary from person to person, but they may include:

• Chest pain
• Fatigue
• Shortness of breath
• A decrease in blood flow to the legs
• A decrease in blood flow to the hands

Arteriosclerosis is treated with a variety of treatments, including:

• Medications to lower blood pressure
• Medications to reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke
• Surgery to widen the narrowed artery

There is no one cure for arteriosclerosis, but the treatments available can help improve your quality of life.

7. Preventing arteriosclerosis

Arteriosclerosis is a degenerative disease that affects the arteries. It can cause thickening and narrowing of the arteries, which can lead to heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems.
There is no one cause of arteriosclerosis, and it can develop at any age. However, risk factors for the disease include high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and a sedentary lifestyle.
There is no cure for arteriosclerosis, but treatments can help reduce the risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular problems.

8. Arteriosclerosis and heart disease

Arteriosclerosis is a progressive disease that causes the hardening of the arteries. As a result, blood flow to the heart is impaired, which can lead to heart disease. There are many symptoms of arteriosclerosis, but some of the most common are:

1. Fatigue
2. Chest pain
3. Shortness of breath
4. Unusual weight gain
5. Pale skin
6. Easy bruising
7. Sudden changes in blood pressure
8. Dizziness
9. Narrowing of the arteries
10. Memory problems

There are many treatment options for arteriosclerosis, but the most important thing is to get treatment as soon as possible. Treatment options include:

1. Diet
2. Exercise
3. Medications
4. Surgery
5. Revascularization

There is no one treatment that is guaranteed to work for everyone, but early detection and treatment is the key to a successful outcome. If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the symptoms of arteriosclerosis, it is important to speak to your doctor.

9. Arteriosclerosis and stroke

Arteriosclerosis is a progressive disease that affects the walls of your arteries. The disease causes the artery walls to thicken and harden, which can lead to a stroke.
The symptoms of arteriosclerosis depend on the part of your body that is affected. The most common symptoms are chest pain, shortness of breath, and irregular heart rhythm.
Arteriosclerosis is treated with a variety of therapies, including drugs, surgery, and angioplasty. The goal of treatment is to prevent a stroke or to reduce the severity of a stroke.
There is no cure for arteriosclerosis, but there are treatments that can help improve your quality of life.

10. Arteriosclerosis and other diseases

Arteriosclerosis, a form of vascular disease, is the leading cause of death in the United States. There are many symptoms and treatment options available, so it’s important to know what to look for if you’re concerned about your health.
The most common symptoms of arteriosclerosis are a pain in the chest, shortness of breath, and swelling in the legs and feet. If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to get checked out by a healthcare professional.
There are many treatment options available, and some medications can improve symptoms and reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke. If you have arteriosclerosis, it’s important to talk to your healthcare professional about your symptoms and treatment options.

Arteriosclerosis is a disease that affects the arteries. It is a leading cause of death and is most commonly caused by the accumulation of plaque in the arteries. There are many symptoms and treatment options for arteriosclerosis, so it is important that you speak with your doctor to determine which is best for you. We hope that this article has helped you understand the disease a little better and provided some information on the various treatment options. Thank you for reading!

Case reports and controversies in vascular medicine in english

We are seeing more and more patients who are on a cholesterol lowering medication, but this does not stop their arteriosclerosis from worsening

As outlined above in the article in the Irish Times there is quite a controversy regarding the so-called diet-heart hypothesis. An assumption means that depending on how much saturated or unsaturated fat you eat, there will be arteriosclerosis. As a consequence carbohydrate and sugar consumption increased over the last decades making things worse.

It is probably time for a change of paradigm. In the future, I will give you examples from patients – people like me and you – which demonstrate the dilemma we are currently in.

Around 8 million people in Britain and 35 million in the US take statins. They are thought to prevent heart attacks and strokes by lowering levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood. Statins are routinely prescribed to people thought to be at risk of heart disease, including those with diabetes, high blood pressure, and over-75s.


Up to six million adults in Britain currently take statins to lower their cholesterol levels and thereby reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes. But many doctors and patients are worried about their long-term harm and they have been linked to diabetes, muscular pain, and memory loss. Scores are uneasy with what they describe as the ‚over medicalization‘ of the middle-aged, which sees statins doled out ‚just in case patients have heart problems in later life. Supporters on the other hand, including the health watchdog Nice, say the pills should be prescribed more widely to prevent thousands of early deaths. They are proven to help people who have suffered heart problems in the past. But experts say the thresholds may be too high, meaning benefits are outweighed by side effects for many people. Commonly reported side effects include headache, muscle pain, and nausea, and statins can also increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, hepatitis, pancreatitis, and vision problems or memory loss. Advertisement   However, in the new study, scientists argue that widespread prescription of statins is not particularly effective at reducing death. If anything, they argue, the focus on cholesterol levels fails to identify many of those at high risk of heart disease while including those at low risk, who don’t need treatment. The researchers systematically reviewed all published clinical trials comparing treatment with one of three types of cholesterol-lowering drugs – statins, ezetimibe, and PCSK9. Their analysis showed that over three-quarters of all the trials reported no positive impact on the risk of death and nearly half reported no positive impact on the risk of future cardiovascular disease. The researchers claimed that doctors have overlooked evidence that suggests statins are not effective. Dr. DuBroff said: ‚In most fields of science the existence of contradictory evidence usually leads to a paradigm shift or modification of the theory in question, but in this case, the contradictory evidence has been largely ignored, simply because it doesn’t fit the prevailing paradigm.’However, the findings were criticized by several other experts who stressed that there is lots of evidence showing the health benefits of lowering cholesterol. Cardiologist Professor Robert Storey, from the University of Sheffield, said: ‚There is a huge amount of evidence showing that LDL or „bad“ cholesterol is responsible, to a large extent, for the build-up of fat in the blood vessels supplying the heart, brain and other parts of the body.’People who have developed furring of these blood vessels) benefit greatly from treatment to lower cholesterol, such as statins, and this has contributed to a big fall in risk for patients who have had the most common types of heart attack and stroke.’Where the evidence becomes less clear is for the use of cholesterol-lowering treatment in people who do not have any evidence of furring of the arteries.’This is because people who do not have ongoing furring of the arteries will not benefit in a meaningful way from cholesterol treatments over the few years that it takes to do a clinical trial, although this does not mean that they won’t benefit over a longer period of time if they are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease.’Alun Hughes, professor of cardiovascular physiology and pharmacology at UCL, said the authors had conducted a ‚flawed analysis of published data‘. He added: ‚In contrast to the authors‘ conclusion, I think there is convincing evidence that statins reduce total mortality and cardiovascular events.‘ Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, yesterday defended the use of statins. He said: ‘There’s no question that statins save lives. As one of the most widely prescribed drugs in the UK, they have been subject to a huge amount of in-depth scientific research, which time and time again, has shown that they’re a safe and effective way to prevent deadly heart attacks and strokes.‘Flawed analysis of this vast evidence leads to unnecessary concern and confusion for patients, which can ultimately cost lives.‘If you have been prescribed statins you should continue to take them regularly, as prescribed. If you have any concerns you should discuss your medication with your GP.’

Why do we still prescribe statins: We still do not know for sure whether the LDL- Cholesterol reducing effect can really prevent a stroke or a myocardial infarction. According to some studies high-risk patients who already had one of these diseases will most probably benefit from these drugs. Whether this is due to the Cholesterol-lowering effect or as some researchers assume due to the antiinflammatory properties of statins is a question that cannot be answered yet.

Lifestyle modifications are most probably at least as important if not even more than taking powerful drugs.

The following article by Paul Greensberg describes in a very informative way how lifestyle modifications can be life-saving or at least prevent severe illness.

Heart disease? Oh, c’mon, that’s so old school.” So went my thinking as I rode a conveyor belt into a CT scan in one of those dreary medical-imaging facilities I’d managed to avoid for the entirety of my 51 years. I was fairly certain this was just another test that didn’t really apply to me, one of the many my doctor had tacked on to the growing list of exams we Americans find ourselves subjected to as we move through the decades. And why should it? I’d never smoked, I drank only in moderation—usually red wine. I exercised for a half-hour on most days, meditated not infrequently, and did all the other things one is supposed to do to manage stress. The EKG tracings of my heartbeats were suitable for framing. True, I didn’t exactly follow Michael Pollan’s dictum to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But I did mostly avoid processed junk. (Doritos while driving were, for some reason, allowed.) I’d managed to limit myself to what I thought was a tolerable dozen or so pounds of extra weight and I ate red meat only a couple times a month. That my “bad” LDL cholesterol had been creeping up slowly since my early 40s didn’t concern me that much. My “good” HDL levels were, well, good, and my GP assured me that my ratio of good cholesterol to bad was, also, well, good. And anyway, hadn’t the whole cholesterol thing been debunked by some New York Times writer or something? Related:Ultimate Guide to the Vegan Diet Yeah, yeah, yeah, both of my grandfathers had died of cardiovascular disease. And yeah, yeah, yeah, my blood pressure had started sneaking up on me too. Just as sneakily, in 2017 the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology lowered the standard for normal blood pressure by 10 points, placing me on the border of hypertension. Still, I continued to think of all this heart disease stuff as something that only applied to guys who carried around tackle boxes full of pills, listened to Sinatra on AM radio and instructed waitresses to “Go easy on the salt, will ya sweetheart? I gotta watch my presha.” The pharmacy left five messages confirming that my drugs were ready. But I didn’t pick them up. I just didn’t want to. I was convinced that I wasn’t a statin kind of a guy. Wasn’t there another way?– Paul GreensbergBut unbeknownst to me, as my medical practitioners logged the various changes in my numbers, they were starting to reconsider my normally salubrious state of affairs, moving me out of what they considered “low risk” up into the mid-range for a heart attack or stroke. This is why, in January of last year, I was told to get a coronary calcium scan (aka heart scan), a test—not covered by insurance, thank you very much—that uses highly specific X-ray technology to measure amounts of calcium-containing plaque in the arteries of the heart. Even as the CT scanner zoomed back and forth across my chest, I comforted myself that my friend had cholesterol levels nearly twice as high as mine and had just gotten a perfect zero score on hers. “I got this,” I thought. Two days later, my doctor called to say I scored a 90 out of 400—more calcification in my arteries than 60% of men my age. Without even asking, he phoned in a prescription for statins. If I followed the doctor’s orders, I would be taking pills every day for the rest of my life. The pharmacy left five messages confirming that my drugs were ready. But I didn’t pick them up. I just didn’t want to. I was convinced that I wasn’t a statin kind of a guy. Wasn’t there another way? During the next year I would find out that, yes, there was. Although it is sure as hell wasn’t as easy as taking a pill. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Photo: Nathan Hacket

Heart Disease By the Numbers

If there was one comfort in all this, it was the fact that I was hardly alone in the diagnosis I’d received. Heart disease remains overwhelmingly the top cause of death for Americans, picking off more than 800,000 of us every year. According to the American Heart Association, nearly half of all Americans (48%) are living with some form of cardiovascular disease (which includes coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke and hypertension), and two-thirds have at least two major cardiovascular risk factors, such as high cholesterol, poor diet quality and sedentary lifestyle. And while new medical procedures have come along since Sinatra’s salad days—like stents and bypasses that have saved countless lives—most cardiologists focus on addressing the accumulation of arterial plaque before a stent or bypass becomes necessary. Plaque is a combination of fats, calcium, cholesterol and other molecules that can chronically impede blood flow to the heart and brain. An acute situation can arise if a piece of unstable plaque cracks, exposing the blood vessel to clotting agents in the blood—causing a rapid blockage that leads to a heart attack. And in 40% of such cases that’s that.Stopping or slowing plaque accumulation is where statins enter the picture. Today, most cardiologists agree that excessive LDL cholesterol, which is produced by the liver, is a major contributor to plaque buildup. Statins block the enzyme that prompts the liver to make LDL cholesterol, and also enables the liver to take up excess LDL from the blood, preventing some or all of it from accumulating. But statins do other interesting things. They can also lock the more dangerous, unstable plaque in place, preventing it from cracking. And studies published in the journal Nature and others have found that these drugs have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body and may relax veins and arteries, easing blood flow. Yes, heart disease, on a population level, is as serious as it is common, and “On a population scale statins are miracles,” according to renowned diet-centered physician Michael Greger, M.D., author of the bestselling How Not to Die. Which is why the default for my very mainstream cardiologist was to call in the medication cavalry. Most studies put the mortality risk reduction between 5% and 25%. But when you take it down to a personal level, Greger told me, the benefits of statins are not as great. In men 70 and older (two factors that automatically up your odds) with no previous history of heart disease, the risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke is reduced much less—only by around 0.1% “No doctor tells people that because no one would take these drugs if they did,” said Greger. “I mean, what risk reduction would you need to justify taking a drug every day for the rest of your life?” Now, that’s what I wanted to hear. I am an individual, damn it, not a population. And I am a pretty motivated one to boot. What if I adopted the most heart-healthy eating pattern possible, amped up my exercise regime and dropped those pesky extra pounds? I decided to give myself a year to make it work. And if it didn’t, the drugstore was right around the corner. 

Photo by Alesia Kozik on Pexels.com

Photo: Nathan Hacket

My Experiment with Veganism

Ever since writing a book about heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, I’d been interested in the differences in outcomes from diet to diet. I’d also been circling around the idea that the best diet for your body might also be the best one for the planet. So when I began researching what to eat for my yearlong heart-improvement project, my attention eventually zeroed in on going vegan. For the planet there’s little doubt that veganism works. Animal agriculture contributes nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions created by food production globally—and 78% of its methane emissions. And for me, a vegan diet felt straightforward; it eliminated whole categories of foods I might be too tempted by. With health outcomes, plant-based diets have shown promising results—although there’s conflicting evidence as to whether going vegan, vegetarian or eating mostly plants but allowing for some meat, fish and dairy is best. What I found most impressive were the studies that cardiologist Dean Ornish, M.D., founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, conducted in the 1990s— looking at what happened to cardiac patients when they were put on a plant-based (though not completely vegan) diet. In many cases, Ornish discovered that with people like me who had significant calcification, their arteries actually opened up. This phenomenon has been attributed in part to the high amounts of anti-inflammatory micronutrients that a plant-centered diet—full of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, pulses and nuts—delivers. More recently, a review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that among a group of 96,000 Seventh-Day Adventists—who adhere to varying types of plant-based diets—those who were vegan had the lowest risk of hypertension, as well as the lowest BMIs, compared to participants eating a vegetarian diet or a plant-based diet that included small amounts of animal foods. Other research on this cohort has linked veganism to better cholesterol levels, reduced inflammation and lower rates of heart disease. So, plants it was. But which plants? Here again, I turned to Ornish, or rather Greger, Ornish’s colleague. In his hundreds of short nerdfest online videos, Greger has over the years tried to take all the studies of all the foods out there and wedge them into what amounts to a mega meta-analysis of everything from broccoli to beans to beets. Based on that distillation, Greger recommends a diet to his patients that meets nearly all of your nutritional needs and delivers the fiber, antioxidants and other micronutrients that are thought to be the key to tamping down inflammation, lowering LDL cholesterol and improving cardiovascular health. What most decidedly wasn’t on the list were animal products and highly processed foods of any kind.The transition was choppy. Going out to eat was a nightmare. Restaurants had to be pre-vetted and I became that irritating member of a social circle who didn’t partake in the shared appetizer platter. At home, though, things went much smoother. I’ve always loved to cook and swapping in mushrooms for pork in my Bolognese didn’t bother me much. In fact, I was impressed with all the many ways plant-based cooking had advanced since I last tried vegetarianism back in the ’80s. Making cashew mozzarella was a revelation, as was the totally convincing swap of aquafaba (canned-chickpea water) for eggs in homemade mayonnaise. And by the time I arrived for my three-month checkup, I felt confident that I could sustain my new diet. In preparation for my experiment, I had also switched to a more lifestyle-centered cardiologist, Suzanne Steinbaum, D.O., president of the SRSHeart Center for Women’s Prevention, Health and Wellness in New York City. She’s used to challenging establishment assumptions, having been a leader in drawing attention to the overlooked fact that for American women, too, cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death. But even Steinbaum was cautious about the idea of holding off on drugs. In fact, like pretty much every doctor I interviewed for this article, Steinbaum saw many benefits in statins. “I know cardiologists who, after putting in so many stents on so many patients say, ‘They should just put statins in the water,’” she told me. Indeed, many of the cardiologists I talked to were themselves on statins.But a week later, when the results of my first blood tests came back, Steinbaum was impressed. In just a few months, my LDL had dropped from 160 to 127 mg/dL. My blood pressure—which had been stubbornly stuck at 140/90 mm Hg—was trending downward to something like 135/85. Still, she said, we should really dive deeper to try to figure this out. In other words, more tests.

Photo: Nathan Hacket

Changes for the Better

We have come a long way in the last 60 years in understanding the root causes of heart disease. Way back in the Rat Pack days, when the physiologist Ancel Keys first started peering into arteries and finding fatty deposits in the vascular system of middle-aged males, the thought was that fat and cholesterol from food were somehow literally oozing into our blood vessels and clogging them up: a kind of plumbing problem. But as medical research has become more fine-scaled in its ability to identify nuanced pathways, we’ve come to understand that coronary artery disease is a multi-factor issue, one that hinges on a complicated interlinking dynamic of diet, lifestyle and genes.As I entered the second quarter of my vegan trial, Steinbaum and I started trying to tease out how I stood on those other factors. She ordered a battery of new tests that looked both at my liver’s natural ability to deal with cholesterol, as well as at my genetic proclivity to have faulty LDL-clearing enzymes in the first place. (I should say here that I am lucky to be covered under my partner’s excellent insurance—or getting to the root of things could have made a serious dent in my finances.) On the good side, a test for APOE (apolipoprotein E), a hereditary marker that is strongly linked to heart disease and Alzheimer’s, came back with a normal reading. On the not-so-great side was the result of a panel of tests done by Boston Heart Diagnostics. Generally, Boston Heart judged me to be sound. But one factor that showed red in the user-friendly pamphlet the lab gives its patients was an elevated level of apolipoprotein B—the protein component of what cardiologists call “small and dense” LDL. These particles are very strongly associated with heart attack risk. Worse, small dense LDL levels don’t change all that much in response to what we eat. If it turned out that apoB-driven LDL was at the root of my problem, it’s possible that my endeavors might hit a wall, regardless of how much broccoli and beets I shoved down my gullet. Nevertheless, I persisted.When I let Greger know that I’d lowered my LDL by more than 40 points he was pleased, but not particularly surprised. Most of his patients, he said, saw a 30% reduction in LDL in just a few weeks after switching to a vegan diet. This is partially due to actual changes the diet seems to engender in the functioning of the liver, but also because the switch generally drops your weight. And weight has a considerable correlation with cholesterol. Greger explained that for every pound lost, people also tended to shed about one point of LDL. Seeing as I was still above the normal BMI range, I decided to up my exercise and see if I could knock both numbers down.This might have been as important a choice for me as changing diets. Exercise, it turns out, is about the most statistically effective form of intervention there is for reducing cardiac “events,” as doctors call heart attacks and strokes. According to Benjamin Levine, M.D., a professor of internal medicine and cardiology at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas, in people like me with calcium scores of less than 100, studies have found a whopping 50% reduction in heart attacks and strokes when subjects exercised regularly compared to those who remained sedentary. (He notes that the benefit seems to plateau at around five hours a week.) Besides shaving off pounds and reducing stress, exercise also lowers blood pressure, stabilizes the heart’s rhythm and even improves its overall structure. Particularly relevant to my dilemma: there is evidence, too, that exercise helps transform unstable plaque into the calcified stuff that won’t break off and cause … an event.Since I had already been doing 30 minutes a day, I upped my “dose” to the upper part of Levine’s range and started running 45 minutes daily. 

The Outcomes of My Vegan Year

It’s hard to say if I was experiencing a massive kale-induced placebo effect, but I can truthfully say that by month nine of my experiment I felt fantastic. I had lost a dozen pounds, had more energy and could manage 10K runs without joint pain or shortness of breath, though I did miss a good steak from time to time. And my labs from Steinbaum cheered me. “The most compelling markers that we have are the cholesterol and blood pressure,” she wrote. “Your LDL cholesterol before you started your trial in February was 160, in May it decreased to 127 and now it is 118. Your ambulatory blood pressures in May were 120-145/80-95. Currently your blood pressures are in the 120s/70-80s.” Based on all that, it seemed I had beaten the rap. On the presumption that a continuation of my diet and exercise plan would further lower my numbers, Steinbaum was holding off on statins for the moment.„It’s hard to say if I was experiencing a massive kale-induced placebo effect, but I can truthfully say that by month nine of my experiment I felt fantastic.“– Paul GreensbergAs I started taking a victory lap, I consulted a bunch of other doctors to fact-check (but also to crow about my numbers). Sadly, several suggested that my whole experiment might be flawed. “The oversimplification of LDL has been driven by the promotion of drugs that lower LDL, rather than the science which says the driver is inflammation,” Mark Hyman, M.D., head of strategy and innovation at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, explained on a Zoom call this past winter. “While LDL is a useful risk factor, it is not as important as the overall pattern of cholesterol— small dense LDL particles, high triglycerides, low HDL—and inflammation. The most dangerous pattern is driven by a diet high in sugar and starch not fat.” Other physicians I interviewed agreed that animal fat isn’t the biggest problem. Rather, it’s sugars and simple carbs that drive insulin spikes and inflammation and, in turn, heart disease. Indeed, a study review published in Progress of Cardiovascular Diseases found that some sources of saturated fat may have no impact on heart disease, while refined carbs—particularly added sugar— lead to an uptick in inflammation, LDL and other changes that increase heart disease risk and can lead to a threefold risk of dying from it. “But I bake my own bread and it’s 100% whole-wheat!” I protested. Not enough, Hyman said. “My rule of thumb is the only bread you should eat is a loaf you can stand on that won’t squish.” As a precaution, I followed his advice and switched to a Danish health loaf that indeed bears a certain resemblance to a tasty brick. And in general, as I continued to modify my diet, I favored Greger’s advice to eat only whole, plant-based foods and eschewed the products coming out of the rapidly emerging highly processed vegan-food sector.If there is one thing I’ve learned after a year of being more in contact with the medical world than I’d normally care to be, it’s that tests beget tests. As I geared up to see Steinbaum for a final evaluation, we planned a repeat cardiopulmonary exercise test (CPET) to see if the impressive 112% VO2 score I’d gotten earlier was a fluke or a trend. We’d redo the apoB test and find out if I’d managed to tackle the “very bad” bad cholesterol issue. And we’d test to see if I had any “endothelial dysfunction,” a way of charting whether the calcium picked up in my calcium score was inside or outside of my arteries.But then the coronavirus swept across New York City. All nonessential services were shut down, including Steinbaum’s office. In mid-March, I developed a dry cough, slight difficulty breathing, a fever and extreme fatigue. I knew people with impaired heart health were particularly vulnerable to COVID -19 and I was sure I had it. I worried. And then, just as suddenly as they arrived, my symptoms vanished. My breathing returned to normal. I started running again. I felt great. Had my improved cardiovascular health contributed to my mild viral experience? Had all that diet and exercise paid off in actual life-saving in the face of a deadly pandemic? I wanted to think so. When I finally tested positive for COVID antibodies in May, that very much seemed to be the case.Now I’m just waiting for Steinbaum’s office to open back up so we can keep on improving my numbers. I’ve seen the results of changes in lifestyle and diet and am committed to doing better with how I eat and exercise. Because, really, in these crazy times with all the stresses ahead, I know I’m going to need a whole lot of heart. 

Bottom Line

Here are a few takeaways from my year as a vegan. You are not me. Come up with a plan that your doctor agrees with based on your numbers. For example, if you get a calcium score over 300 (as opposed to my 90), statins are probably in your future. And if you’ve already had a heart attack or stroke, don’t think about any of this until you’ve consulted your cardiologist. Stick to dense, fiber-rich whole grains. Eat “bread that you can stand on without squishing it” as Dr. Hyman says. Go easy on the salt. Not all people are salt-sensitive meaning their blood pressure ticks up in response to a high-sodium diet—but salt is a major contributor to hypertension, which in turn is one of the major risk factors for heart attack and stroke. Supplement. If you’re going full-on vegan you will likely have to supplement your diet with vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids—nutrients that are primarily found in nonvegan foods like fish and eggs. Animal-free forms of both are widely available. Question your “healthy” diet. Log it and record what you’re really eating. Even those Doritos in the car. Measure your exercise too. Are you getting 3 to 5 hours a week? If not, up it. It’s OK to cheat. (Full disclosure: I did several times.) A piece of meat here and there is not apt to blow out your arteries. Rather, as Dr. Michael Greger notes, the goal is a significant overall decrease in saturated fat and increase in anti-inflammatory plant-based foods. EatingWell, September 2020

  • Paul Greensberg
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