MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The No. 1 killer of men and women is typically the No. 1 thing they ignore.
Statewide, major cardiovascular diseases took the lives of 7,843 women in 2012 — and 7,735 men — yet it remains one of the most silent, hidden and misunderstood diseases. While one in 31 American women dies from breast cancer each year, one in three dies of cardiovascular disease, according to Go Red for Women, a movement within the American Heart Association.
"Too often, women are diagnosed as having indigestion or anxiety and not actually heart-related problems," said Lauren Roden, Go Red for Women director of central Alabama. "I think also the one thing we try to stress is that you can't take care of others if you can't take care of yourself. That's the classic scenario, is that women are less likely to seek care for themselves, and we're trying to change that."
But it is not just the women.
In fact, while men used to die in far greater numbers from the disease, now the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions says the death rate is almost even.
A Kaiser Family Foundation study of deaths caused by heart disease between 2000 and 2010 found that for each 100,000 people living in the United States, 225.1 men and 143.3 women died from heart disease.
In Alabama, that number was much higher for both men and women. For every 100,000 people living in the state, 290.5 men and 193.3 women died from heart disease. Only Mississippi was worse with 310.9 men and 204.7 women for every 100,000 in state population dying from it.
Comparing heart disease deaths, not to living population, but to the overall death rate, shows that heart disease accounts for about one in every four deaths for both men and women. About 600,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year, according to the CDC. Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease, killing more than 385,000 annually.
The American Heart Association has a new national goal — by 2020, to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent while reducing deaths from cardiovascular diseases and stroke by 20 percent.
Every year, about 715,000 Americans have a heart attack, according to the CDC, and of those, 525,000 are a first heart attack and 190,000 happen in people who already have had a heart attack. As a practicing cardiologist, Anu Rao still sees massive heart attacks, but not like they were seen years ago.
"That takes people coming in and getting checked early," said Rao, who serves as president of the board of directors for the American Heart Association for the greater Birmingham area. She is a cardiologist with Cardiovascular Associates of the Southeast in Birmingham at Brookwood Medical Center.
"Once you go in and get checked out, the majority of the people we see aren't going to have heart disease, but it gives us the opportunity to start them on prevention so they don't get a disease in the future," she said. "If you're very concerned that your heart is involved, then going and getting checked out with a cardiologist is a good way to find out whether something is going on, or that it is nothing serious."
This month, the Montgomery Advertiser will look at the disease, its effects on people in the River Region and the lessons they can provide others.
"People need to be aware of their risk for heart disease," Rao said. "A lot of people don't even perceive themselves to be at risk. It is very important for adults to see their physician to see if they are at risk. It could be high blood pressure, diabetes, tobacco use."
And there also are newer risk factors including rheumatoid arthritis, connective tissue diseases such as lupus, and even depression.
"Coronary disease or blood vessel disease could also be related to inflammation," Rao said. "Depression, especially if anxiety is associated with it, or anything that raises adrenaline in your body, could potentially affect blood vessels."
Heart disease is a disease of aging and genetics, but lifestyle also plays a role. All ages can be affected.
Obesity is a risk and related to a cluster of risk factors like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. The (obese) are more often sedentary, and that too can raise risk.
"Being slim however is not protective if you're not pursuing a healthy lifestyle," Rao said. "People are getting bad fats and high sodium in their diet especially when they eat out.
"We're actually on the cusp of a generation who are predicted not to live as long as the generation before them. A lot of that is lifestyle. The fast food culture ... people think they are too rushed to cook at home. We're seeing young people with heart disease and risk factors earlier in life probably related to this."
"We know that treating blood pressure and cholesterol greatly reduces risk," Rao added. "We've seen the rates of bypass going down in this country. Prevention has made a difference. People just need to be looking ahead at moderation and focus on healthy behaviors."
Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com