There's been a lot of hoopla this week over research showing that the cholesterol-lowering drug Crestor lowers the risk of heart attacks and strokes in those with normal cholesterol but high levels of inflammation—measured by a marker called C-reactive protein, or CRP. The Jupiter study, which involved nearly 18,000 people and appears in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, found that people taking the statin Crestor for two to five years cut their risk of having a heart attack or stroke by 50 percent during that period. They also had a lower risk of bypass surgeries and angioplasties.
Experts predict that as a result of the study, many millions of seemingly healthy people will be screened for inflammation using a blood test called high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) and that millions of them will be put on statins to combat inflammation. While statins certainly are lifesaving for those with high cholesterol or established heart disease, their benefits are more modest for those at fairly low risk of heart disease: About 0.72 percent of the statin takers in the trial had a heart attack or stroke compared with 1.5 percent of those taking placebos.
So, some experts say, if you have high CRP but are otherwise healthy, "go slow," and consider all the benefits and risks of statins before you decide to take them. Where that hs-CRP screening test might come in handy is to spur you to make lifestyle changes that will naturally lower excess inflammation—and your heart disease risk. Try these six measures:
1. Stop smoking. Smoking hardens the arteries and could send CRP levels surging. But research shows you can reverse all the damaging effects to your arteries within 10 years of quitting. (For help quitting, you can click here.)
2. Think olive oil, fish, and nuts. Researchers have shown that overweight folks who stick with a Mediterranean-style diet—based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and olive oil—can lower their levels of inflammation. "An anti-inflammatory diet is about reducing saturated fat and trans fats and eating more foods rich in alpha-linolenic acid—like flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil—and omega-3 fats, which fight inflammation," says Evangeline Lausier, a staff physician at Duke Integrative Medicine. On the flip side, scientists have shown that the typical American fast-food diet increases heart attack risk by 30 percent. (Here's the latest on four healthful diets and on 11 easy ways to load up on omega-3s.)
3. Get active. No one wants to exercise, but it's a great way to lower inflammation without any side effects associated with medications. An ideal amount? Not too much (which raises inflammation) and not too little. Aim for five days a week of steady exercise (brisk walking, swimming, biking) for 30 to 45 minutes. (You can read up on how to make your workout quick and sweaty.)
4. Shrink your waist size. Take a tape measure and measure your waist, right around the point of your bellybutton. If you're a woman with a waist measurement of over 35 inches or a man with a waist of over 40 inches, you probably have high inflammation. Whittling a few inches off the waist by reducing your portions and increasing activity can go a long way toward solving that problem. (Here's a dietary technique that might help you lose weight.)
5. Get enough sleep. A new study out this week shows that elderly people with high blood pressure who sleep less than 7.5 hours a night have dramatically elevated chances of having a stroke or heart attack or suffering sudden cardiac death. Other research has shown that too little sleep (less than six hours) or too much (more than eight hours) results in more inflammation. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says most adults need between seven and eight hours of shut-eye a night. (Not convinced? Consider these 10 reasons not to skimp on sleep.)
6. Reduce stress. High levels of stress hormones can lead to the release of excess inflammatory chemicals, so try each day to pencil in 15 minutes of relaxation—deep breathing, meditation, or a bubble bath that lets you leave the world behind.