IN a previous column a few years back, we reported that one person in the United States died of a heart attack about every 60 seconds.

The stat has almost doubled. Recent studies show that in America, one succumbs every 33 seconds to this No. 1 killer in America and in many well-developed countries around the world.

In the Philippines, the death toll from a heart attack is about one every seven minutes, and one out of 10 Filipinos 15 years and older has hypertension (high blood pressure).

Hypertension is common among heart patients and a most frequent cause of stroke.

About 80 percent-85 percent of all primary hypertension are mild enough to be effectively controlled by modification in lifestyle alone, sans drugs.

Scary statistics

As we alluded to in the past, to put those frightening statistics in their proper perspectives and truly understand the gravity and impact of cardiovascular diseases on all of us, one person in America has already died of CVD the past 33 seconds (2,500 will die today), and one individual in the Philippines will succumb to CVD in the next seven minutes or so (about 216 this day alone).

All of those two events will be happening while you are reading my column.

Alarming and scary, indeed!

Chocolate to the rescue?

Scientists now say that chocolate, especially the dark variety, is good for our cardiovascular system.

Health experts claim that this mouth-watering, and practically “addictive and decadent” food item, improves the circulation and lowers the blood pressure.

For centuries, cocoa has been used for medicinal purposes in Europe and the Americas.

The 2006 study of a team of researchers from the University of California-Davis and the University of Dusseldorf in Germany confirmed that “the compound epicatechin found in cocoa is directly linked to vasodilation and improved circulation and other hallmarks of cardiovascular function.”

The flavanol-rich compound causes relaxation of constricted blood vessels (especially the arteries) “mediated by nitric oxide (NO), a key signal released by the inner lining of the arteries,” same action as Viagra, Cialis or Levitra in their ability to vasodilate (open up) and fill with blood the veins of the penis, to effect engorgement, as a treatment for erectile dysfunction.

The relaxed blood vessels are less prone to clotting and blockage.

This effect also leads to reduction in the blood pressure among hypertensives (persons with high blood pressure).

A separate study in Tufts University and the University of California, San Francisco, confirms the U of C and Dusseldorf findings on vasodilation and added the information that consumption (in moderation) of chocolates did not increase the lipid (cholesterol) level.

Review of other studies reveals that “flavanoids from chocolates have an anti-inflammatory effect by controlling the activation of several pro-inflammatory agents in the body.”

A University of Buenos Aires scientist, Cesar G. Fraga, found that there was a rise in the procyanidins in the blood following ingestion of cocoa-based foods, which protected the circulating lipids from the bad oxidation process.

Chocolates also have a cardio-protective effect via its effects on prostacyclins, which work like low-dose aspirins, with their mild anti-coagulation (blood thinner) action, preventing blood clots by reducing platelet clumping, a process that induces blood clot formation.

Procyanidin and flavanol in cocoa have significant anti-oxidant (free radical fighting) properties, which protects the heart and the vascular system, by protecting the cell membranes and minimizing the oxidation of the LDL (bad) cholesterol, thus slowing down hardening of the arteries.

Oxidation in our body is a major cause of aging among human beings and other animals.

(This process is akin to the oxidation that transforms a brand new car paint into an old-looking, faded, shin-less, aged appearance, and the metal parts corroded, lusterless and damaged.)

This is why fruits and vegetables, which are loaded with anti-oxidants, are strongly recommended for us to eat at least three times a day.

Red meats, egg yolks, smoking, lack of exercise (sedentary lifestyle) have the opposite effects, besides their bad fat/cholesterol elevating properties.

Dark chocolate, which contains the highest level of cocoa (at least 60 percent), is the one that confers (almost exclusively) the best cardio-protective benefits.

The flavanoids are found in cocoa beans but not in the milk, cream, sugar and other additives that make chocolates lighter or whiter.

Preferred are the chocolates processed without “dutching” or alkalinization, because these methods destroy a significant amount of antioxidants in cocoa.

Heat also destroys these flavanoids, so chocolates that are cold-pressed are better than those “pressed with heat.”

So, together with a healthy lifestyle, and in moderation, one may “sinfully” savor dark chocolate a couple of times a day without guilt...and enjoy a happy heart.

Make that two hearts, comes Valentine’s Day, with or without flowers!

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