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Poor Health Habits Continue to Contribute to Heart Disease, Stroke

Americans need to make changes in their lifestyles to prevent serious complications.

Heart health

-- by Julia Haskins

The Gist

Americans should know by now that practicing healthful habits is imperative for a long life. We see commercials, celebrities, and magazine advertisements encouraging us to get more exercise, stop smoking, and eat more nutritious foods. Despite these health-minded initiatives, the message still isn't getting across. The "Heart Disease and Stroke Statistical Update 2013," published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, reported that even though we know we should be taking better care of our bodies, the threat of heart disease and stroke is as present as ever.

"We don't know all of the reasons for why general public health messages about making healthy lifestyle choices is not having the fully intended impact," said Alan S. Go, M.D., chairman of the report's writing committee and chief of the Cardiovascular and Metabolic Conditions Section of the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research in Oakland. "However, various societal changes have made it easier to make unhealthy lifestyle choices, including widespread access to unhealthy foods, barriers to increasing regular physical activity, and challenges in successfully navigating the complex healthcare system to ensure risk factors are detected and optimally managed."

The Expert Take

Current trends in lifestyle habits have set progress back. Among the alarming statistics:

  • More adults age 20 and over are obese (34.6 percent) than normal or underweight (31.8 percent); 68.2 percent are overweight or obese.
  • Among children ages 2 to 19, 31.8 percent are overweight or obese.
  • Thirty-two percent of adults report no aerobic activity; 17.7 percent of girls and 10 percent of boys, grades 9-12, report fewer than an hour of aerobic activity in the past week.
  • 13.8 percent of adults have total cholesterol of 240 mg/dL or higher.
  • Thirty-three percent of adults have high blood pressure; African-Americans have among the highest prevalence of high blood pressure (44 percent) worldwide.
  • 8.3 percent of adults have diagnosed diabetes, and 8.2 percent have undiagnosed diabetes; 38.2 percent have prediabetes.
  • Thirty-three percent of adults reported engaging in no aerobic leisure-time physical activity 
  • Despite four decades of progress, in 2010, among Americans less than 18 years of age, 21.2 percent of men and 17.5 percent of women continued to be cigarette smokers. In 2011, 18.1 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 reported current cigarette use.

"Part of the challenge is that much of the American healthcare system is fragmented and there hasn't been a systematic, coordinated 'top down' and 'bottom up' approach to prevention across the U.S.," said Go. "Changing the American population's risk profile for heart disease and stroke will take a coordinated effort from the top down (e.g., health policies, health systems) and the bottom up (e.g., helping individual patients and families within physician practices within neighborhoods and communities)."

He added, "Despite many improvements in healthcare and prevention, we need to find ways that make it easier to do the most effective thing for an individual patient at the right time. In other words, personalized medicine but on a large, national scale."

"As the leader in the fight against heart disease and stroke, we are taking a more aggressive and innovative approach, including taking some pages from the playbooks of the public health sector," said Dr. Donna Arnett, Ph.D., president of the American Heart Association and chairperson of the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. "We're focusing on population-based ways to improve health factors for all Americans."

Source and Method

The figures were taken from research from the American Heart Association (AHA), in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and other government agencies.

The Takeaway

Committing to a more healthful lifestyle means putting in a little more effort. Fortunately, taking small steps today can lead to significant improvement in the future. Dr. Go offers the following advice:

  • Stop using tobacco in any form. 
  • If you already drink alcohol, do so in moderation. 
  • Make heart-healthy food choices and reduce overall calorie and salt intake. 
  • Exercise at least three times per week, including simple things like brisk walking for at least 15 minutes at a time. 
  • Get screened regularly for heart disease risk factors, including high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, and kidney disease. 
  • If appropriate, take medications (e.g., cholesterol or blood-pressure lowering drugs, aspirin, ACE inhibitors, or angiotension II receptor blockers [ARB]) as prescribed to treat risk factors and to meet target goals).

"There can be many different motivations, but I believe that realizing that the choices we make today can have long-term positive consequences is an important one—and not just for preventing heart disease and stroke," said Go. "Our decisions today can influence our future outcomes in a positive (or negative) way, and the good news is that there are a lot of tools to help people make those healthy decisions."

Other Research

This 2000 New England Journal School of Medicine study followed women's diets and lifestyles to determine their risk of coronary heart disease and primary prevention. 

Even those who lead low-risk lifestyles must be wary of their health, as this 2011 JAMA study shows.

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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research , Public Health & Policy

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.