Coronary heart disease is the number one killer, worldwide, of men and women over the age of 60. But people of all ages succumb to heart attacks each year. And while death rates have declined in the U.S. and many western European countries, mortality is on the rise in the developing world. Yet most heart disease is preventable.
No one would have guessed that Barbara Teng would have a heart attack. She was not overweight. She did not smoke. But she also did not exercise.
“In 2004, the week after I turned 49, when I was on a business trip in Chicago, I had a major heart attack,” she said.
And that changed her life. She now exercises daily, monitors her heart health, and speaks at events held by Sister to Sister, a heart health program for women. Susan Gurley, the organization’s director, says the message is urgent.
“Heart disease is 82 percent preventable and it is the leading cause of death for women,” she said.
It’s also a leading cause of death for men. The World Health Organization reports that more people die each year from heart disease than from any other cause. WHO says more than 60 percent of deaths from cardiovascular disease take place in low and middle-income countries. It says the heart disease pandemic is on the rise.
Dr. Patrice Desvigne-Nickens is with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. She says the key to staying healthy is knowing your numbers.
“Your weight, your blood cholesterol, blood sugar and your blood pressure are important numbers that can help you take action and reduce your risk,” she said.
She says a healthy lifestyle can prevent heart disease.
“And the steps to take are simple: don’t smoke, maintain a healthy weight, exercise, know your numbers and talk to your physician and control these risks,” she said.
African-Americans are at higher-than-average risk for heart disease and stroke, according to Michelle Magee, a physician.
“There’s a very high prevalence of uncontrolled hypertension and also unrecognized hypertension so people don’t even know they have it, which increases the risk for heart disease and stroke,” she said.
In the nation’s capital, Medstar Washington Hospital Center is trying to reach this population. Neighborhood barbers develop relationships with their clients. With the right training, they can play an important role in community health, for example helping their clients monitor their blood pressure.
These programs operate on the premise that if people realize they are at risk for heart disease, they’ll make lifestyle changes: lose weight, exercise, eat the right foods and keep in touch with a doctor.