February is American Heart Month, a time when everyone is encouraged to focus on their cardiovascular health. Heart disease has long been the leading cause of death for both men and women, surpassing cancer. In 2022, nearly 15,000 Alabamian deaths were attributed to heart disease and more than 3,000 lives were claimed by cerebrovascular diseases, including strokes.
Lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medications can greatly reduce the risks of heart disease. About half of all Americans (47%) have at least one of the three key risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking.
Risk factors for heart health are summarized below:
- High blood pressure: High blood pressure is often called the “silent killer” because it usually has no symptoms. Unfortunately, many Alabamians do not realize they have hypertension, and over time, damage can occur to organs and other systems throughout the body. The only way to know if you have high blood pressure is to measure it.
- Unhealthy blood cholesterol levels: High blood cholesterol usually has no signs or symptoms. The only way to know if you have high cholesterol is to monitor it. Your healthcare team may perform a simple blood test, called a “lipid profile,” to measure your cholesterol levels.
- Smoking: Smoking cigarettes can damage the heart and blood vessels, increasing the risk of heart conditions such as atherosclerosis and heart attacks.
- Diabetes: The risk of death from heart disease for adults living with diabetes is higher than for adults who do not have diabetes. Talk to your doctor about ways to prevent or manage diabetes and control other risk factors.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages everyone to play an active role in their health and learn what it takes to keep their heart healthy. Healthy habits include choosing healthy foods and drinks, maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular physical activity, and not smoking or vaping. Medications may include those that lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
Alabama state employees have the opportunity to learn if they have risk factors for heart disease. Since 2009, the State Employees Insurance Health Plan has offered wellness exams for state employees and their dependents as part of its Wellness Program. Since January 2009, more than 45,000 employees and family members have been referred to healthcare providers for early treatment of identified high risks.
The Department of Health offers programs to promote heart health. The Cardiovascular Health Program provides support including self-monitoring blood pressure stations across the state by partnering with senior centers, libraries and other community sites. The WISEWOMAN program, available in several counties, provides services to improve high blood pressure and promote healthy lifestyles for low-income, uninsured, and underinsured women. The Well Woman Program offers services to promote healthy living and disease prevention/early detection for women ages 15 to 55 who reside in select Alabama counties. Services include cardiovascular disease risk factor screening, risk reduction counseling, nutrition classes, support groups, and physical activity resources to maintain a healthier lifestyle.
Many Alabamians have taken positive steps to reduce their risk of heart disease by working with their healthcare provider and following their treatment plans. This means taking medications as directed and making lifestyle changes, such as reducing sodium, for people with high blood pressure.
For those who want to improve their heart health by quitting the use of tobacco products, Alabama Tobacco Quitline offers free calls, free counseling, and free nicotine patches (if medically eligible and undergoing counseling). Information, referrals and advice are confidential and sessions are designed around a time convenient to the caller. Those who enroll in the counseling program can receive, if medically eligible, up to eight weeks of nicotine patches to help them quit smoking. Call 1-800-QUIT NOW or visit quitnowalabama.com.
While heart disease can be debilitating or deadly, it is often preventable. By leading a healthy lifestyle, you can help keep blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels in a healthy range and reduce your risk of heart disease and heart attacks.
Information about making heart-healthy choices is available on the ADPH Nutrition and Physical Activity website.
Scott Harris, MD, MPH
State health officer