By Timi Gustafson, R.D.
February is “Heart Health Month.” Health advocacy groups and organizations like the American Heart Association (AHA), the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) want to remind us that heart disease is the most common cause of death in America and deserves more of our attention.
Sadly, heart disease has become nothing short of a national crisis in this country. “Heart disease takes the lives of far too many people in this country,” said Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “With more than two million heart attacks and strokes a year, and 800,000 deaths, just about all of us have been touched by someone who has had heart disease, a heart attack, or a stroke.”
Heart disease is also very expensive to treat. Cardiovascular disease and stroke hospitalizations have cost nearly $450 billion in health care expenses and lost productivity in 2010 alone.
“The sad truth is that these ailments are usually preventable, and in a perfect world I would be out of a job,” said Mehmet Oz, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon and host of “The Dr. Oz Show.” “Unfortunately, I’m busier than ever,” he added.
Raising awareness is a crucial way to fight back against the spreading disease. In 2011, the HHS, in collaboration with the CDC and other government agencies as well as private organizations, has launched a program named “Million Hearts,” a nationwide initiative aimed at preventing one million heart attacks and strokes over the next five years. Among its many goals, the program wants to “empower Americans to make healthy choices,” such as avoiding tobacco use and reducing the amount of sodium and trans fat they eat, and to “improve care for people who need treatment” by encouraging them to take steps to better control their blood pressure, cholesterol levels and other major risk factors for cardiovascular disease and stroke.
“Million Hearts” is not the only awareness movement in the country. “Go Red for Women” is a nationwide program by AHA “to fight heart disease as the number one killer of women in America.” Observers can express their support by wearing red clothing or pins. “Choose to Move” is another AHA project dedicated to women’s heart health through physical exercise.
Sending the right messages is vitally important, especially for women, said Dr. Oz. “Many women and their health care providers believe that heart disease is less serious in women than in men. This is simply not true. Studies show that more women than men die within a year of having a first heart attack. Women are two to three times more likely than men to die following heart-bypass surgery, and more women than men die each year from congestive heart failure.
In fact, women may suffer from a completely different type of heart disease than men, according to Noel Bairey Merz, MD, director of the Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, which is not yet fully understood and harder to detect, and therefore can often remain undiagnosed until it is too late.
The good news is that there are only a few causes of heart disease that are out of our control, such as genetic predisposition, family history and aging. The rest is a matter of choice. Even small lifestyle improvements can make a significant difference. Weight control, good nutrition, regular exercise and stress reduction are all part of that. Each one of these is fully achievable for everyone with enough commitment and willingness to make the necessary efforts. Raising awareness is a good start, but it doesn’t end there.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.