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U.S. Heart Health: Lots of Room for Improvement

The American Heart Association has just issued America's annual heart health report card. While there is good news, much of it is overshadowed by bad news, and we definitely have room for improvement.

Dec. 15, 2011 -- Among seven factors for heart health, almost all Americans have at least one factor at a “poor” level.

The American Heart Association has issued America's annual heart health report card. While there is good news, much of it is overshadowed by bad news, and we definitely have room for improvement.

The death rate from heart disease and stroke dropped more than 30% between 1998 and 2008, but we're remiss on habits that help the heart, such as getting regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight.

"We have seen a dramatic decline in death due to heart disease and stroke," says researcher Donald Lloyd-Jones, MD, ScM, chair of preventive medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

While there is reason to celebrate that progress, he says, "We have a major tsunami that is threatening us. That is the obesity epidemic, which has been with us for 25 years. We are seeing the leading edge of this tsunami that is going to reverse many of the gains we have achieved in the last 40 years."

"We need to get serious about the obesity epidemic yesterday," he tells WebMD.

The report, "Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics -- 2012 Update,” is published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

Heart Health by the Numbers

Every year, the American Heart Association works with the CDC and the National Institutes of Health to gather the most up-to-date statistics on heart disease, stroke, and other vascular diseases and their risk factors.

The latest information:

  • Heart disease and stroke accounted for 32.8%, or 1 in 3, of all U.S. deaths in 2008.
  • Slightly more than 67% of adults are either overweight or obese.
  • Among children and young adults ages 2 to 19, almost 32% are overweight or obese.
  • Children aren't getting enough physical activity. In 2009, 29.9% of girls and 17% of boys in grades nine to 12 said they had not done 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity even one time in the previous week.
  • Among adults, one-third report they engage in no aerobic leisure-time physical activity.
  • Calorie intake is up. The average total calorie intake from 1971 to 2004 rose 22% in women and 10% in men. Women average 1,886 calories a day now, men 2,693.

7 Heart Health Factors: How Do You Stack Up?

Besides not having a diagnosis of blood vessel or heart disease, the American Heart Association considers seven factors important to heart health:

This year's report found that 94% of U.S. adults have at least one of these factors at ''poor'' levels. And 38% of adults score poorly on three or more. Half of U.S. children ages 12 to 19 meet four or fewer of the factors.

Heart Health Report: Lifestyle Has an 'Enormous' Impact, Says Doctor

"This is a wake-up call," says P.K. Shah, MD, director of cardiology at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles. He reviewed the findings but was not involved in the study.

The decline in stroke deaths is among the best news, he says. That is due, he says, to better management of stroke patients. The drop in overall death from heart disease and other vascular disorders is also good news.

''The bad news is we still have a September 11th-type tragedy occurring every 24 hours," he says. Heart disease and stroke claims 2,200 Americans each day -- one death every 39 seconds.

The lifestyle issues -- overeating, not exercising, and not maintaining a healthy weight -- threaten the advances, Shah agrees. He worries that our bad habits could wipe out the potential benefits of medical advances within 15 or 20  years.

"The key here is, we aren't doing enough on the front of lifestyle modification," Shah says.

Robert Michler, MD, surgeon-in-chief and co-director of the Montefiore Einstein Center for Heart and Vascular Care at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, agrees. "What needs to be learned from this is: very simply, that lifestyle cannot be eliminated from one's heart  health. It has an enormous impact on one's health."

The economic climate results in great pressure on people and their ability to follow healthy habits, he says. People are also bombarded with offers to ''supersize'' their meal, he says. "People have lost perspective on what is appropriate body size and meal size," Michler says.

He advises people to focus on making daily decisions about their diet and their physical activity. "Every meal needs to be a conscious decision about portion size and what it is you are eating," he says. "Deciding how you will transport yourself is another important decision." Think stairs, not elevator.

"Every day the decisions you make [in those two areas] will have enormous impact over the long haul," Michler says.

Some members of the writing group that authored the report disclose serving on advisory boards for pharmaceutical companies, including Abbott and Boehringer Ingelheim, as well as serving on various speakers bureaus.

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