How to Keep Your Heart Healthy: Local Experts Share Their Best Advice

Published on Mar 1, 2024

Two experts from Huntington Health, Crystal Kwan, MPH, RDN, CDCES (left) and Azhil “Alex” Durairaj, MD (right), offer their insights on heart health. [Huntington Heath photos]

Heart disease is the number one killer in the U.S., claiming more than 600,000 lives every year. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Many risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, smoking, and physical inactivity, can be prevented or controlled with lifestyle changes and medical treatment.

To mark American Heart Month, Pasadena Now is publishing interviews with two experts from Huntington Health in Pasadena, a leading regional health care provider in Southern California, about how to protect your heart and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. Azhil “Alex” Durairaj, MD, is the medical director of cardiovascular services at Huntington Health, and Crystal Kwan, MPH, RDN, CDCES, is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist.

They shared their knowledge on the causes and symptoms of heart disease, the latest advances in diagnosis and treatment, and the best practices for maintaining a heart-healthy diet and exercise routine. Here are some of the highlights from their conversation.

What should people know when it comes to the importance of preventative heart care?

Dr. Durairaj: The biggest risk factors for heart disease are diabetes; obesity; high blood pressure and high cholesterol. It’s important to regularly monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol levels to maintain a healthy heart. Simple lifestyle tweaks also go a long way in helping to reduce your risk factors. Be sure to manage your weight, stay active, get enough sleep and try to avoid stress.

How does diet affect cardiovascular health?

Crystal Kwan: A healthy diet is key to preventing and managing cardiovascular disease. Good nutrition can help lower your total cholesterol, blood sugar and triglyceride levels — while also improving your blood pressure. Making good food choices can also help reduce your risk for developing heart disease in the first place.

What is the most important thing you want people to know about heart health?

Dr. Durairaj: Heart disease is preventable and 100% modifiable. Just because your parents or your uncle had a heart problem, doesn’t mean you have to. Your doctor plays an important role, but you must make some effort, too, by making lifestyle modifications. This includes daily physical activity and eating a heart-healthy diet. According to the CDC, walking 150 minutes a week (or just over 20 minutes a day) can put you at a lower risk of heart disease.

How can people change their diet to make it more heart-healthy?

Crystal Kwan: Aim to eat a variety of whole foods like fruits and vegetables versus highly processed ones. Prepare more meals at home and eat out less. Most restaurant meals include more salt, sugar and fat than home-cooked meals. When cooking, season foods with herbs, spices, vinegars, lemon/lime to boost flavor and utilize less salt. Replace sugar-sweetened beverages with low or no calorie beverages such as water, and drink alcohol in moderation. These changes will help:

  • Increase your fiber intake, which is good for your heart.
  • Reduce saturated fat and added sugars in your diet.
  • Lower salt levels to control hypertension.
  • Assist with weight loss, which may potentially help with other conditions such as diabetes.

Can the Mediterranean diet really improve cardiovascular health?

Crystal Kwan: Research supports practicing the Mediterranean diet for the prevention of cardiovascular disease, increasing lifespan and healthy aging. In fact, it’s been shown to reduce your risk of heart disease; metabolic syndrome; diabetes; certain cancers and depression. It prioritizes eating plants, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes. The Mediterranean diet champions cooking with plant-based oils like olive oil, eating moderate amounts of animal proteins and dairy and limiting highly processed foods and alcohol.

What is a sign that something may be wrong with your heart?

Dr. Durairaj: With heart disease, there aren’t always signs, which is why monitoring your blood pressure and cholesterol levels is critical. Often, by the time something feels noticeably off in the body, cardiovascular disease has progressed. With that said, overt warning signs for men and women can differ. Chest pain/discomfort, shortness of breath or arm tingling, should always be a concern. Women can also present with less “classic” signs including abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, jaw pain or back pain. If these symptoms are recurrent or persist, it’s important that you seek medical care immediately. 

What is something about the connection between heart health and diet that may surprise most people?

Crystal Kwan: Small, incremental changes over time can have a positive impact on your overall health. This can be something as simple as adding a piece of fruit to your afternoon snack or drinking one less soda per week. Doing something consistently is often more important than trying to change your entire diet at once, since you’re more likely to stick with it for the long run. Changing the “good” food/ “bad” food mindset will also help create a healthier pattern of eating. All foods can be enjoyed. Learning how to balance your food choices while enjoying foods from your culture or during the holidays is an important skill so that we don’t take the joy away from eating.

Is there a screening test for heart disease?

Dr. Durairaj:  A coronary artery calcium (CAC) test is a special computerized tomography (CT) scan of the heart. It looks for calcium deposits in your arteries. A buildup of calcium can narrow the arteries and reduce blood flow to the heart. A CAC may show coronary artery disease before you have symptoms. Your cardiologist or primary care physician can order it. Talk to your doctor about whether the CAC test is right for you.

What are some new medical advancements when it comes to heart health?

Dr. Durairaj: We have multiple therapies to control cholesterol now — not just statin. These alternative medications have minimal side effects, as well. There are also some exciting new treatments to control blood pressure and diabetes that are showing benefits to the heart. Additionally, there are new drugs that can permanently lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Overall, this means we’re getting really good at keeping the heart healthy. We’re also learning that a healthy heart can benefit your brain — and that’s critical because as we live longer, we want quality of life, not just quantity of life. 

What are a heart patient’s treatment options?

Dr. Durairaj: Modern medicine allows us to offer patients multiple options to treat cardiovascular disease. Depending on your condition, we may recommend stents, bypass surgery, a pacemaker or heart valve repair. In fact, at Huntington Health’s state-of-the-art Helen and Will Webster Heart & Vascular Center, we offer a full spectrum of cardiac services, including advanced medical and surgical treatments, using the latest medical technologies. With that said, treatment doesn’t stop at cardiac surgical options. Lifestyle changes are equally important for combating heart problems.

Visit to learn more about the Helen and Will Webster Heart & Vascular Center. The organization has recently expanded their dedicated cardiac, vascular and thoracic surgery program. Check out to meet their expert surgeons.

You may also visit to learn more about how a registered dietitian can help you create an individualized nutrition plan to support your heart health goals this year.

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