Cardiovascular diseases claim more lives each year than all forms of cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease combined, according to the American Heart Association.
In addition, about 2,200 Americans die of cardiovascular disease (CVD) each day, an average of one death every 39 seconds. Caring for your heart is critical to your health – and it’s never too early – or too late – to start.
“Preventing CVD begins in childhood,” says Pamela Craven, a cardiologist with Oklahoma Heart Hospital in Oklahoma City. “We know the process of atherosclerosis, which involves the thickening of the inner wall of blood vessels from buildup of cholesterol plaques, begins in youth.
“Many risk factors for developing atherosclerosis can be identified in childhood. These include elevated blood cholesterol, elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure, tobacco exposure and a positive family history for early onset of heart attacks and strokes – under the age of 65 for men and 60 for women.”
Craven says a person’s lifestyle is the most important factor for the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
“Good habits of healthy eating and exercise, maintaining a healthy body weight and maintaining a healthy attitude – avoiding depression – begin in childhood,” she says. “The child who is taught these good habits has a much better long-term likelihood of avoiding CVD in youth and as they age.”
According to Craven, for some individuals, “lifestyle habits will need to be supplemented with medical treatment for risk factors such as hypertension, hyperlipidemia (an abnormally high concentration of fats or liquids in the blood) and diabetes.”
She says these medications may treat these factors, but they work more effectively with diet and exercise. In addition, guidelines recommend annual screening of body weight from age 2, blood pressure from age 3 and cholesterol screening by age 10.
“For any adults who have missed these screening measures, it is never too early or too late to start screening and taking measures to prevent CVD,” she says.
Guidelines for high blood pressure were updated late last year. High blood pressure was previously defined as 140/90 but has moved to 130/80. A blood pressure of less than 120/80 is considered normal but levels reaching up to 129/80 are now considered “elevated.”
“The most important lesson to be learned from the new guidelines is that high blood pressure remains the No. 1 risk factor for heart attacks and strokes – and physicians and patients should pay more attention to detection and prevention of high blood pressure with lifestyle change,” she says. “Treating high blood pressure with medications can be very challenging without the effort of lifestyle change made by the individual, so prevention at an early age remains our best hope at reducing the incidence of hypertension in the population and for preventing its sequelae in the individual.
“At Oklahoma Heart Hospital, we have developed a center of excellence in the prevention of heart disease. We are interested in keeping the community healthy, focusing both on the prevention of disease before it develops – primary prevention – as well as the prevention of recurring events after it has already developed and resulted in an event such as a heart attack or stroke – secondary prevention.”