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The ‘80s and ‘90s may not have been so great for hairdos (gravity-defying bangs) or fashion (grungy, flannel everything), but they were good for something: namely, our health. The risk of Americans dying from heart disease fell by 43 percent between 1980 and 2000, according to a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine).
Though you might be inclined to credit modern medicine with the drastic decline, better treatment is not the main reason why our hearts are healthier. Prevention efforts, like quitting smoking, keeping cholesterol levels in check and lowering high blood pressure, are what really brought heart disease mortality rates down. Looks like we’re finally getting something right in the health department! Even the study’s researchers were surprised by their findings, said lead author Fiona Young, from the Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle University in England.
Young’s team analyzed 20 years of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), an annual survey that represents the entire U.S. population. They found that heart disease deaths fell because Americans are reducing their risk factors for the disease -- namely, through healthier lifestyle habits. Drops in cholesterol and blood pressure had the biggest impact, following by the decline in smoking. Over those 20 years, Americans lowered their systolic blood pressure by an average of 4.86 mm/Hg and total cholesterol by 5.94 mg/L. Smoking rates fell by 12.4 percent. The results, say researchers, are promising. By making healthy individuals aware of the risk factors and teaching them how to avoid heart disease in the first place, Americans may be able to lower mortality rates even more in the future.
With a long history of heart disease in my family, I like to stay on top of my risk factors. I’ve been tracking my blood pressure and cholesterol levels (LDL 73/HDL 81) since I was 25. My older sister, on the other hand, has never had her cholesterol tested. The National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) and the American Heart Association advise everyone over 20 to have your cholesterol tested every five years. Every few months I remind my sister to make a doctor’s appointment to find out what her numbers are. Like many moms and wives, she takes her kids to the pediatrician’s like clockwork, and she even knows her husband’s cholesterol is on the high side, but she hasn’t gotten around to having her own tested -- until, I hope, today. As I write this, she is at her family doctor’s for her annual physical. She even fasted, hoping they could take her blood right there and then, because she knows she isn’t likely to make a repeat visit for lab work. Besides family history, my sister, at 38, has no other apparent risk factors for heart disease, like obesity or smoking. But there is no way of knowing what your blood pressure or cholesterol levels are without having them checked. And that’s what makes heart disease so dangerous -- sometimes you just never know until it’s too late.
The best way to prevent heart disease -- or stop it from getting worse -- is by quitting smoking, exercising regularly and eating a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. And, it also couldn’t hurt to lower your stress. Take the sage, though cloying, advice of ‘80s one-hit wonder Bobby McFerrin: "Don’t Worry, Be Happy" (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
Do you know your cholesterol and blood pressure numbers? What’s your risk for heart disease? Chime in below!