200,000 Lives Could Be Saved from Heart Disease Each Year

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Now there’s a number for how effective lifestyle changes can be in protecting the heart and preventing deaths from heart attack and stroke.

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the U.S., but a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that many of the deaths are avoidable. According to CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden, 80% — or 200,000 — deaths from heart disease can be traced to lack of physical activity, poor diet, obesity, smoking, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels — all things that people can control. And some populations in the U.S. are more vulnerable than others; more than half of the preventable deaths occurred in people under age 65, and African-Americans had twice the risk of dying of a heart-related cause than their similarly aged white counterparts.

(MORE: Walk, or Run, to Lower Heart Disease Risk: Benefits Are Similar)

While the report also showed some overall declines in preventable heart deaths, the rates remain high, despite growing public awareness of lifestyle methods for reducing risk. About 80% of Americans do not get the recommended weekly 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, 70% of adults are overweight or obese, and one in three have high blood pressure. As daunting as changing diet and exercise habits may seem, however, there is evidence that even small changes can go a long way.

Researchers at the University of Utah recently showed, for example, that those who reported doing short bouts of high-intensity exercise–just a little over or under 10 minutes–had lower rates of obesity. “What we learned is that for preventing weight gain, the intensity of the activity matters more than duration,” said study leader Dr. Jessie X. Fan, a professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah in a statement.

Instilling healthy lifestyle habits at young ages is another way to encourage heart-healthy diets and exercise, so the U.S. government has stepped in to change children’s food environments with new school lunch and snack standards that give students more access to fresh fruits and vegetables and limit their exposure to sugared sodas and high calorie snacks.

(MORE: A Daily Walk Can Reduce the Power of Weight-Gaining Genes)

While they were well-intentioned, however, these efforts haven’t been so welcome; last year, high school students complained about the reduced-calorie offerings in their cafeterias and posted a parody video highlighting their concerns. And other efforts are meeting with criticism from parents. In 19 states, schools measure students to calculate their Body Mass Index (BMI), an indicator of obesity based on a child’s height and weight, and send the results home to parents. Calling the reports “fat letters,” some parents find the reminders worrisome, pointing out that the readings could only heighten children’s anxiety or sensitivity about their weight and encourage bullying. In the medical community, researchers are starting to question the reliability of BMI, since it doesn’t take into account the difference between muscle and fat mass and may not be the best indicator for assessing health. Without an alternative, however, it remains the only method available.

Finding ways to cut back on the number of preventable deaths in coming years will take trial and error as public health officials, doctors, parents and the public start to apply what they know about heart disease risk factors to their everyday lives. “Even one preventable death is one too many,” Frieden told reporters in a press conference. “It’s really possible for us to make rapid and substantial progress in reducing these deaths.”

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