WASHINGTON -- Americans are taking better care of their hearts, and it's paying off.
There has been a significant decline in heart-related hospitalizations and deaths over the last decade, according to a new report by the American Heart Association published in the journal Circulation.
Researchers reviewed data on nearly 34 million Medicare patients between 1999 and 2011. They looked at rates of hospitalization, dying within a month of being admitted to a hospital, re-admittance within a month and dying in the following year.
The research team says the results were "jaw-dropping." There was a 38 percent decline in hospitalizations for heart attacks during this period, and about a one- third drop for both heart failure and stroke. The risk of dying within a year decreased too: Down 23 percent for heart attacks, and 13 percent for heart failure and stroke.
"This is tremendously encouraging data," says Dr. Warren Levy, the chief medical officer of Virginia Heart.
Levy says a lot of factors are at work, including improved preventative care, increased public awareness of the symptoms of cardiovascular events, and earlier treatments.
He says hospitals are moving much more quickly to mechanically unblock clogged arteries through cardiac catheterization. It used to take about 120 minutes from the time a patient entered the hospital. Now, it is down to an average of 90 minutes, and some medical facilities are trying to hit 60.
Patients are also being diagnosed with heart problems earlier, enabling doctors to take action before there is significant damage, such as prescribing cholesterol- lowering statins.
Better lifestyle choices have had an impact as well, such as the decline in smoking.
But, Levy says we have a long way to go.
Despite the improvements cited by the American Heart Association, the fact is heart disease remains the biggest killer of American men and women.
"We can clearly decrease the risk of heart attacks and strokes by another 25 percent with very easy to accomplish interventions," Levy says.
More people quitting smoking is an obvious one. But, so too is cutting the risks posed by high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
"If you look at where most of the heart attacks and strokes occur in the United States, it is exactly where we have the greatest problems with obesity," Levy emphasizes.
He says all these problems are intertwined.
"Without making an impact on diabetes and hypertension, we are not going to make further improvements in the reduced risk of heart attacks and stroke in the American population."
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