If there is someone qualified enough to convince you of how your lifestyle choices affect your health, it’s got to be a cardiologist.
Cardiologist Kimberly Parks has spent the majority of her career treating heart transplant recipients. But, instead of treating patients already in the throes of chronic disease, she has set out to help patients prevent and, even, reverse their symptoms.
Parks launched her own practice just last year in collaboration with Newton-Wellesley Hospital and Castle Connolly Private Health Partners, LLC. It features primary care that focuses on lifestyle medicine, which “uses evidence-based therapeutic lifestyle interventions to treat, prevent or reverse disease,” she says.
These interventions address six major pillars of every patient’s life: diet, exercise, sleep, stress management, exposure to toxins, and social relationships. “Loneliness kills a lot of people,” she says.
As someone who has been working as a cardiologist for 12 years, Parks says she has seen a lot of patients “with diseases that we would put Band-Aids on, by giving them medication.” And, although medication is necessary and life-saving, Parks admits, it can cause side effects or make people sick in other ways.
Throughout her career, Parks has worked with many patients who were coming to terms with the end of their lives. “What I was treating were diseases that are largely preventable, such as coronary artery disease or cardiomyopathy caused by toxins in alcohol or drugs.”
“You start dealing with enough deaths that could have been prevented, and you see enough people living with pain and suffering because of their medical ailments, you start to wonder if there is a better way,” she says.
While still practicing cardiology, Parks began studying lifestyle medicine, another side of health care that treats ailments by addressing root causes, which can often be linked to an individual’s specific lifestyle choices.
Many integrative and holistic health practitioners follow or are inspired by ancient Eastern traditions, such as Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine or naturopathy, but lifestyle medicine, in particular, is based upon scientific research.
A 2018 article titled “Lifestyle medicine: A brief review of its dramatic impact on health and survival,” published in the peer-reviewed medical science publication, The Permanente Journal, lays out some startling facts about the current health crisis of Western lifestyles.
“Chronic diseases are presently the leading cause of morbidity and mortality and are responsible for most of our health care expenditure,” the article states.
In fact, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Infection, in 1900, 53 percent of deaths in the U.S. were due to infectious diseases. Fast forward a century later, and 33 percent of deaths in the U.S. are due to heart disease and 32 percent of deaths are due to cancer.
More than 80 percent of chronic conditions could be avoided through the adoption of healthy lifestyle recommendations, the article continues to state. The problem is, the majority of the US population doesn’t know how to adopt these recommendations or are given minimal information on how to implement them by health care practitioners.
Leading chaotic and overworked lives can be detrimental to our ability to make better lifestyle choices. Parks experienced this firsthand as a “busy mom with a job working 50 to 60 hours a week. I was spending my life telling patients to get healthy, but not practicing what I preached for a long time,” she says.
Parks can now proudly say she practices what she preaches. One of the major changes the doctor made in her own life was carving out time for meal planning to ensure she was consuming beneficial food throughout the week, instead of just grabbing things on-the-go.
Another significant change she made was increasing her daily movement and exercise. “I have a treadmill in my office, and oftentimes I’m walking while I’m doing my charting or on a conference call,” she says.
At Synergy Private Health, members can take advantage of the practice’s cardiology services and primary care, in addition to the lifestyle medicine approach. Services include a stress management corridor where members go in and do guided meditations or aromatherapy.
Synergy also has a teaching kitchen to help members implement whole, plant-rich diets. “We not only tell people to eat healthy, we teach them how to cook healthy food,” says Park.
A global study published this year found that poor diet is the leading risk factor for deaths in the majority of the countries of the world.
“The foods we eat are slowly creating chronic disease,” says Parks. “And, it’s not the food we eat in a day, it’s the food we eat over a lifetime.”
As someone who can speak from the perspective of both western medicine and lifestyle medicine training, Parks says that the U.S. health system doesn’t put enough emphasis on lifestyle choices. “We are trained to be a reactive society, we respond to disease when it occurs,” she says. “I was trained on how to counsel a person on taking cholesterol medication, but not on how to talk to someone on how to eat.”
Today’s health care system also puts a greater burden of administrative work on physicians, says Parks, which leaves even less time for doctors to have face-to-face time with their patients to delve deeper into their wellness.
Parks cautions that we need to take care of ourselves and study up. “We tend to, as women, be servants to our children, significant others, bosses, and we tend to serve ourselves last. Sign up for courses, webinars and educate yourself on your own risks for disease,” she says. “Women typically are the anchors of the food environment in the house, and they can set examples for their children and family.”