Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women among all racial and ethnic groups. Approximately one million Americans die every year from this disease. Yet, despite increasing public awareness, the cardiovascular health of the U.S. population remains in disturbingly poor shape. According to a recently published analysis, only 2 percent of individuals meet the American Heart Association definition of “ideal” cardiovascular health.
Per the new definition, cardiovascular risk is based on seven health behaviors and risk factors — smoking status, healthy body mass index (BMI), diet (based on the healthy diet score), participation in physical activity, and levels of blood pressure (less than 120/80 mm HG), blood glucose (less than 100 mg/dL), and total cholesterol (less than 200 mg/dL). The only risk factor that has been favorably modified is tobacco cessation; fewer Americans are using tobacco products when compared to 30 years ago.
Unfortunately, the improvement in tobacco cessation is offset by the increase in BMI and number of people with sedentary lifestyles, poor diet, and undesirable fasting blood glucose. Roughly two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
The real tragedy is many of the deaths attributed to heart disease are preventable. Experts agree that prevention is key: Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and avoid tobacco use. Instead, obesity and diabetes rates continue to rise. And the epidemic is spreading to teenagers and children. Increasingly, cardiovascular health is compromised during childhood and adolescence through bad habits that include poor diet and sedentary lifestyle.
People who are sedentary have twice the risk of heart disease as those who are physically active. Despite these risks, America remains a predominantly sedentary society. Surveys show that more than half of American adults do not practice the recommended level of physical activity, and more than one-fourth are completely sedentary. At least 20-30 percent of the nation’s adults (about 60 million people) sare obese and thus have a higher risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, each risk factors in their own right. Only about 20 percent of people report eating the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
So what might Americans do, here and now, to protect themselves and their loved ones from heart disease? A good start is for each person to assess his/her individual cardiovascular health. The American Heart Association has developed a clever, straightforward tool called Life’s Simple 7 Action Plan, which allows patients to recognize risk and favorably modify behavior. The recommendations are inexpensive to adopt, easy to follow, and proven to make a big difference. Broadly speaking, any activity is good activity, and we each stand to benefit from improved diet and tobacco cessation.
But perhaps just as importantly, we are obliged to teach our children about the health benefits of proper diet and habitual exercise. Family caregivers are the primary decision-makers when it comes to the nutrition and physical activity needs of their children.
Remove junk food and sugary beverages from their diet. Discuss and show them healthy foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein and fish. Involve them in food preparation. Bring them to the local farmer’s market so they might learn about growing and harvesting, the seasonality of produce, and the benefits of fresh, whole foods.
Also teach them about the relative harm of fatty, processed foods. For instance, a simple way to explain cholesterol to a child is to show the difference between a straw sucking up water and a straw sucking up pudding. Several scientific studies confirm that when young children learn about heart healthy habits, it can reduce their heart disease risk later in life.
In addition, all children age 2 and older should participate in at least 60 minutes of enjoyable, moderate-intensity physical activities every day. Parents should try to be role models for active lifestyles and provide children with opportunities for increased physical activity, while simultaneously reducing sedentary time (e.g., watching television, playing computer games, or talking on the phone). Better aerobic conditioning, at any age, is linked to increased life expectancy and decreased risk of heart disease.
The cornerstone for reducing heart diseases is developing healthy diet and exercise habits. Family members are frequently more motivated to do what is best for their children than they might be even for themselves. As such, engaging and educating children about proper diet and regular exercise could ultimately reduce risk for the entire family!
Dr. Adrian Messerli is a board-certified cardiovascular disease physician and interventional cardiologist on the medical staff at Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center. He practices at Ephraim McDowell Cardiology, located at 216 W. Walnut St. in Danville, and can be contacted at (859) 239-5870.