We are currently facing a double burden of disease: a pandemic of the novel infectious disease COVID-19 and the pandemic of heart disease. While there will be a number of deaths from COVID-19 this year, the number of people dying of cardiovascular disease has been, and will continue to be, the leading cause of death in the Northland and worldwide.
Every 33 seconds, someone in the United States dies of heart disease, and 32% are younger than 75. Every day, someone suffers a sudden death due to heart disease with no known history of heart disease. Many of these sudden-death victims did not have the opportunity for treatment because their deaths were the first sign of the disease.
Prevention of heart disease is key. While each individual’s risk is different, the people at the highest risk for a heart attack or stroke — and also the highest risk for severe COVID-19 complications — are survivors of a prior heart attack or stroke. There is no cure for heart disease or stroke, so having this disease puts a person at increased risk for another event.
Heart disease is the pandemic of the past century. Alongside infectious diseases, heart disease requires renewed and intensified public health action to prevent new cases.
With the aging population and increasing risk factors — such as being overweight and having diabetes and high blood pressure — the heart disease pandemic is showing no signs of slowing. Heart disease, heart failure, and stroke are arguably the greatest public health concern. These diseases are the consequences of the silent progression of atherosclerosis and high blood pressure.
Like the COVID-19 virus that we are desperately trying to contain, heart diseases continue to spread before we can detect them. However, unlike COVID-19, heart disease is not something that you can get from another person. It is something you develop based on genetic factors you are born with and based on the lifestyle choices you make every day.
The Centers for Disease Control has recommendations to protect ourselves from COVID-19, such as washing our hands; avoiding touching our eyes, noses, and mouths; and avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
Similarly, the American Heart Association recommends things we can do today to protect ourselves from developing heart disease. Some factors we cannot change, such as our age, family history, and genetics. Many factors we can influence, though, like smoking, obesity, diet, and physical activity. The combination of favorable health habits and conditions are called “cardiovascular health,” and together they can protect against the development of heart disease.
So, first, eat better. Eat a heart-healthy diet with more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and beans (legumes). The American Heart Association recommends eating four to five cups of fruits and/or vegetables a day. Frozen fruits and vegetables are a great option now as we shop less often. Try a new recipe that includes these healthy options.
Second, limit your salt. If you have risk factors, ensure a sodium intake of less than 2 grams per day. When choosing canned or boxed items, look at the sodium on the label and compare labels.
Three, get active. Get at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day. Go for a daily walk, do some jumping jacks, or turn up the music and dance.
Four, stop smoking. If you smoke or use e-cigarettes, cut back and pick a quit date. Smokers are at higher risk of getting pneumonia and other infectious diseases as well as developing heart disease.
Five, know your numbers. Take five minutes at essentiahealth.org/MyHeart to learn about your heart age and risk for heart disease. If you don’t know your blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood sugar, call your primary care physician to get those checked this year.
Finally, lose weight. Normal weight varies by age and gender, but everyone should aim to not gain any weight this year and work toward maintaining a normal body mass index.
Public health investment in preventing heart disease and stroke remains far below what is needed. Our health depends on our public health infrastructure to detect and prevent disease, such as COVID-19 and heart disease. However, what is different from COVID-19 is that we have decades of cumulative knowledge and experience in the prevention of heart disease. If these interventions were put into action now, we could prevent thousands of new cases of heart disease and stroke. The life you save might be your own.
Dr. Catherine Benziger of Duluth is a cardiologist at Essentia Health and is a member of the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. She is also an adjunct assistant professor for the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Duluth campus. She wrote this for the News Tribune.