While progress has been made in reducing the number of heart disease-related deaths in the United States over the past three decades, preventable risk factors continue to account for half of all cardiovascular deaths, according to new research.
About 610,000 Americans die of heart disease every year, accounting for one in every four deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s the number one killer of both men and women nationwide, and the majority of preventable heart disease deaths occur in people under age 65. While experts say lifestyle changes are key to reducing these numbers, a study published today in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests the message isn’t getting across to the public.
To estimate how many heart disease deaths are due to preventable factors, researchers from Emory University analyzed responses from more than 500,000 people, ages 45 to 79, who took part in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) national surveys in 2009 and 2010, as well as data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The researchers focused their analysis on the the top five modifiable risk factors for cardiovascular disease: elevated cholesterol, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and smoking.
The results showed that if all five risk factors were completely eliminated, about half of all heart disease deaths — 54 percent among men and almost 50 percent among women — could be prevented.
To offer a more feasible goal, the authors also calculated how many heart disease deaths could be prevented if all states were able to bring the levels of those five risk factors down to the levels achieved by the five best-performing states in the U.S. Under those circumstances, only about 5-10 percent of cardiovascular deaths would be averted.
“Even the best states are not performing well,” the researchers wrote. In 2009 and 2010, the states with the lowest levels of risk factors were in the West, like Colorado, and those with the highest levels were in the South, including Kentucky, West Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. The results show that that “all states have a lot to gain” by reducing these risk factors, the researchers said.
Some of the things that cause or contribute to cardiovascular disease — genes, age, air pollution, buildings or neighborhoods that aren’t conducive to walking — are beyond an individual’s ability to change. But there are many other factors we can control. However, as the Emory study demonstrates, modifiable risk factors are at the root of many cases of cardiovascular disease.
Overall, high blood pressure and smoking were tied to the highest proportion of preventable deaths. About 80 percent of people reported exposure to at least one of the five risk factors. And research shows that risk factors tend to cluster, so many Americans actually have more than one risk factor. Poor and minority Americans are disproportionately affected by cardiovascular disease risk factors, leading to striking disparities in mortality.
The takeaway message, said lead researcher Dr. Shivani A. Patel of Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, is that a few basic lifestyle changes could drastically reduce the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
With that said, here are five of the most important things you can do to protect your heart:
- Exercise often.
- Eat healthfully.
- Keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar under control.
- Lose weight if needed.
- Don’t smoke.