We are at war against two diseases in the Northland: COVID-19 and heart disease. And we are losing to both.

An article in JAMA, "Deaths from COVID-19," stated that "by October 2020, COVID-19 had become the third leading cause of death for persons aged 45 through 84 years and the second leading cause of death for those aged 85 years or older."

The leading cause of death: heart disease. Sadly, those with heart disease are also at higher risk of severe COVID-19 infection.

The battle against heart disease has been ongoing for decades; the battle against COVID-19 less than a year. Both of these leading causes of deaths require intensive public health education and adequate access to primary care to aid in diagnosis and management.

In the war against heart disease, adults should be armed with knowledge, including knowing their cholesterol level, blood pressure, weight, and blood sugar. These four basic risk factors — in addition to risk behaviors such as a lack of physical activity, a poor diet, and smoking — work together to cause an individual to develop heart disease.

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A blockage of the arteries is a serious condition, as is COVID-19. The war on heart disease has become more urgent during the COVID-19 pandemic because risk factors for heart disease — such as diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure — and having heart disease put a person at the highest risk of dying from COVID-19.

As a physician, I and my colleagues are privileged to be entering the battlefield with a new weapon: the COVID-19 vaccine. Thousands of health care workers and emergency medical personnel in the Northland received or are receiving the first doses of the vaccine. This new weapon did not come soon enough to avoid the catastrophic rise in hospitalizations and deaths in our communities, however.

There is a continued and urgent need for the entire population to help us fight and to continue to take both diseases seriously. We are all familiar with the tools we need to fight COVID-19 and reduce person-to-person transmission from the droplets in the air: wear masks, wear eye protection, social distance, and wash hands. Masks work to reduce the spread of disease.

But every adult also needs to sign up for the vaccine when it is offered — especially those with hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, as well as anyone over age 65. And we need to maintain heart-healthy lifestyles, including a heart-healthy diet, no smoking, and a goal of 30 minutes of physical activity every day to prevent getting heart disease.

Even armed with antibodies from a vaccine, these wars can only be won if we unite as one public with our leaders. This joint community effort is urgently needed to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 and to reduce the burden of heart disease in our community. Divided, we will allow COVID-19 to surpass the current No. 1 killer and become the leading cause of death.

This dual pandemic is not an easy fight, but lives are being lost and will continue to be lost if we don't work together now. We can win these wars. Please join in this fight.

Dr. Catherine Benziger of Duluth is a cardiologist and a member of the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. She wrote this for the News Tribune.