Heart Disease Risk Not What You Think
The list of heart disease risk factors has long included high cholesterol and saturated fat consumption. But now a new review notes that another factor is a better predictor of heart disease, and like the other two risk factors, it involves diet.
What is the new heart disease risk factor?
The “new” heart disease risk factor actually is not a new idea. That new factor is low levels of magnesium, a concept that has been around for more than half a century.
In fact, according to the new review’s author, Andrea Rosanoff, PhD, “by 1957 low magnesium was shown to be strongly, convincingly, a cause of atherogenesis [formation of lesions in the arteries] and the calcification of soft tissues,” both of which are known as serious risks for heart disease. However, researchers turned their attention toward cholesterol and saturated fat intake, and the role of magnesium got much less coverage.
Studies of the effect of magnesium on heart disease have continued since then, however, and the findings of this newest review is one striking example. Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, and medical advisory board member of Nutritional Magnesium Association (a nonprofit) has stated that “The fact that low levels of magnesium are associated with all the risk factors and symptoms of heart disease…can no longer be ignored; the evidence is much too compelling.”
Over the years, scientists have reported how low magnesium levels are associated with high blood pressure (another risk factor for heart disease) and the accumulation of plaque in the blood vessels (hardening of the arteries). In a 2012 report, Rosanoff explained how low levels of magnesium have been associated with other serious health problems, including type 2 diabetes, sudden cardiac death, migraine, asthma, colon cancer, and osteoporosis.
Along with these findings is the fact that nearly half (48%) of adults in the United States do not meet the daily requirement for magnesium, which is 400 to 410 milligrams for men and 310 to 320 milligrams for women. Dean has reported that up to 80 percent of the US population is magnesium deficient. But low dietary magnesium is not the only problem.
Calcium also plays a significant role in this scenario. Many people are familiar with advice to increase calcium intake because this mineral helps support bone health, and calcium intake has risen.
However, calcium needs to be balanced with magnesium to achieve a healthy calcium-to-magnesium ratio. Since dietary magnesium is deficient, this ratio is unbalanced, which increases the risk of heart disease.
Yet another bump in the road is the fact that processed foods, which are the mainstay foods for many Americans, are low in magnesium. At the same time, people are not eating enough of the foods that are rich in magnesium, such as legumes, dry roasted nuts, spinach, soybeans, and whole grains.
Rosanoff also warns that stress can contribute to the depletion of magnesium levels, which is a wakeup call for individuals to take steps to manage stress in their lives. Since stress is also a factor in heart disease, stress management takes on double importance.
What you can do
Rosanoff’s evaluation of the peer-reviewed science on magnesium and heart disease risk urges doctors to measure magnesium levels in patients who have cardiovascular risk factors and to take appropriate action, which may include magnesium therapy.
However, everyone can take steps to reduce their risk of heart disease in regards to magnesium. One step is to evaluate your current intake of magnesium to determine if you at least meet the recommended daily requirement, and then increase your intake of magnesium-rich foods.
You may also consider taking a magnesium supplement, which can be combined with calcium. Be sure to talk to a knowledgeable healthcare professional about the optimal dose for your needs.
Another step is to consult your physician about any heart disease risk factors you may have and the role low magnesium can play. Rosanoff notes that “it is hoped that raising Mg [magnesium] to a healthy, replete level will make it safe to gradually lower (and hopefully eliminate) the levels of medications” if you are being treated for heart disease or its risks.
National Institutes of Health
Nutritional Magnesium Association
Rosanoff A. The magnesium hypothesis of cardiovascular disease. The missing mineral—magnesium. 2013 January
Rosanoff A. Suboptimal magnesium status in the United States: are the health consequences underestimated? Nutrition Reviews 2012; 70(3): 153-64