How many people are diagnosed with heart disease each year?
We might hear more about mortalities caused by accidents or Covid-19 in the news these days—and yes, these are very deadly. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the leading cause of death in America is actually heart disease. And it all starts with a diagnosis. (Here are the signs of an unhealthy heart.)
"Heart disease is very common and occurs in 12.1 percent of the U.S. population," says Kevin J. Croce, MD, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
"Heart disease has been called a silent killer because unlike other illnesses, heart disease develops slowly over years and can present suddenly with catastrophic conditions such as heart attack or sudden death," he says. (Follow these heart health tips from cardiologists.)
What is heart disease, exactly?
The American Heart Association (AHA) says that a diagnosis of cardiovascular disease—an umbrella term used to describe all diseases that affect the heart or blood vessels, such as heart diseases (coronary heart disease)—generally falls into one of the following categories. It's important to note that all heart diseases are cardiovascular diseases, but not all cardiovascular diseases are heart disease.
Cardiovascular diseases affect the heart and blood vessels, and include heart disease, stroke, and peripheral artery disease, a clogging of blood vessels in the limbs that can cause leg pain and cramping.
Most of these health problems tie back to atherosclerosis, or an accumulation of plaque on the walls of the arteries that restricts blood flow.
Heart attack: Blood flow within the heart is obstructed by a blood clot so much that a portion of the heart muscle cannot receive enough blood. The longer this occurs, the more damage is done to the heart as that portion of the heart muscle begins to die. Most people survive their first heart attack, but require medications and lifestyle changes after. About 805,000 heart attacks occur each year in the U.S., according to the CDC.
Stroke: Ischemic strokes (the most common) are caused by a blocked brain blood vessel, most often the result of a blood clot. Hemorrhagic strokes happen when an artery in the brain leaks or ruptures. They're often linked to high blood pressure. There are approximately 795,000 strokes per year in the U.S.
Heart valve issues: There are three main types of valve-related issues. If a valve within the heart doesn't open wide enough for blood to flow through easily, stenosis (narrowing) occurs. If a valve doesn't close fully and leaks, you'd be diagnosed with regurgitation. And if a valve bulges and falls back into the heart chamber, the result is called prolapse. More than 5 million Americans receive a heart valve-related diagnosis annually.
Arrhythmia: This abnormal heart rhythm condition can come in a few forms—too slow (bradycardia), too fast (tachycardia), or irregular. There are more than 454,000 cases of arrhythmia diagnosed each year.
Heart failure: Also known as congestive heart failure, this is a chronic condition in which the heart struggles to pump enough blood. The heart doesn't stop, but it becomes enlarged and the body isn't receiving enough oxygen through the blood. Each year, there are about 550,000 new cases of heart failure are diagnosed in the U.S.
How deadly is heart disease?
Of the 30.3 million Americans who have been diagnosed with heart disease, many are able to lead a fairly long and healthy life with proper medical treatment and lifestyle modifications—more on that later. (If you've yet to be diagnosed, keep in mind these tips for how to prevent heart disease.)
That being said, 655,381 Americans died from heart disease in 2018, making it the leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the CDC. One in four U.S. deaths can be attributed to some form of cardiovascular disease, and every 84 seconds, an American dies of heart disease, reports the AHA. Eight in every 10 heart disease deaths happens to an adult 65 or older.
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Heart disease mortality rates
Heart disease mortality rates vary by ethnicity and gender. Here's a breakdown of the percentage of heart disease deaths by race, ethnicity, and gender, according to 2015 data from the CDC:
Native American or Alaska Native
Asian American or Pacific Islander
"One of the reasons heart disease is so deadly is that many people do not seek help fast enough when symptoms appear," says Satjit Bhusri, MD, founder of Upper East Side Cardiology in New York City. "Sometimes the tendency is to wait to see if the symptoms go away. Doctors warn against ignoring these signs, especially for those who are over 65."
Symptoms of heart disease
What are those all-important signs? Some individuals actually experience no symptoms at all, but if they do occur, these are the most frequently reported signs of a heart problem:
- Chest pain
- Trouble breathing
- Swelling due to fluid retention (often linked to heart failure)
- Heart palpitations or an irregular heartbeat (may occur with an arrhythmia or heart attack)
- Arm, back, leg, or jaw pain
"Most heart attacks start slowly and involve pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or disappears and then returns. It may feel like uncomfortable pressure or a squeezing sensation, or like discomfort in other areas of the upper body. This might include pain in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach and shortness of breath," Dr. Bhusri says.
He adds, "Women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure and they are more likely to experience some of the other symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, fainting, nausea, vomiting, or back and jaw pain." (Learn more about the tests for heart disease.)
What are the possible causes of heart disease?
The AHA has designated seven main risk factors for heart disease, which they call "Life's Simple 7":
- Lack of physical activity
- Poor diet
- Overweight or obesity
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Uncontrolled blood sugar
"All of these can potentially damage the heart or promote the development of cholesterol blockages in the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle," Dr. Croce says, and family history of heart disease—in other words, genetics—can play a role too. (Here are the silent signs of clogged arteries.)
"Don't consider yourself 'safe' if you have only one risk factor. The greater the level of each risk factor, the greater the risk," Dr. Bhusri says.
Heart disease treatment options
Many risk factors begin during childhood, Dr. Bhusri says. So even though the majority of heart disease-related deaths happen in those over 65, it's never too early to start taking positive steps to try to prevent heart disease. Discover the ways to reduce your risk for heart attack and stroke.
If you have been diagnosed with heart disease, Dr. Croce says that "the most important lifestyle changes include daily exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding foods rich in unhealthy fats and cholesterol." He adds, "For patients who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, it's essential that these heart disease risk factor conditions are controlled with lifestyle changes or with medications to prevent worsening of heart disease severity."
Many people who have been diagnosed with any form of heart disease will be prescribed cardiac rehab, a 12-week program that explains how to adjust their lifestyles to reduce these risk factors.
As with any illness (especially one as potentially deadly as heart disease), if you have been diagnosed with any of the conditions above, consult with your doctor for a personalized treatment plan.
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