By Beth W. Orenstein | Follow @HeartDiseases
Medically reviewed by Farrokh Sohrabi, MD
Heart disease on the rise
When it comes to health-related matters of the heart, the news is not so good — a number of heart diseases are on the rise.
According to an analysis in the journal The Lancet, the number of people with peripheral arterial disease or PAD rose almost 24 percent in just 10 years, from 2000 to 2010. People with PAD, a plaque accumulation in the arteries in the limbs, are at greater risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
The number of people with the heart rhythm disorder atrial fibrillation, or afib, is also up and expected to continue to head higher. About 2.7 million Americans have afib. As our population ages, that number is expected to more than double by 2050.
But it’s not just older people who are facing more heart disease. A 2012 study published in the journal Neurology found that people under age 55 are suffering strokes at a growing rate. According to researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, in 1993-94, 13 percent of stroke patients were between the ages of 20 and 54. By 2005, that number had risen to 19 percent.
Chronic illnesses are even affecting kids. A study published in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension in July 2013 found that the risk of children and teens having hypertension rose 27 percent over a 13-year period. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, can lead to stroke, heart disease, and kidney failure.
What’s causing this alarming rise in heart disease in people young and old? A number of factors, most of which are lifestyle choices, said two cardiologists.
The Obesity Epidemic
For Tracy L. Stevens, MD, a cardiologist in the Saint Luke’s Health System in Kansas City, Mo., and a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association, at the top of the list of causes is that more Americans are overweight and too sedentary.
“A big thing is Americans, for the most part, have lost track of who is responsible for their health,” she said. “Americans think it’s someone else, and they don’t have that discipline every day to be on top of their risk factors.”
Obesity has become an epidemic, “and it’s headed in the wrong direction,” she said. According to the American Heart Association, more than a third of adults in the United States, about 78 million, are obese — meaning they have a body mass index of 30 or more. The same is true for our kids: Nearly one in three, or almost 24 million, weigh too much for their own good.
When you’re overweight, you put yourself at risk for a host of health issues, including hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes, which in turn, all increase your chances of having a stroke and heart disease, Dr. Stevens said.
Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, an attending cardiologist and director of Women and Heart Disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and the author of Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart-Healthy Life, couldn’t agree more. Americans are eating too much unhealthy food and not exercising enough, and gaining weight, which results in diabetes and obesity. “Diabetes and obesity lead to atherosclerosis (or hardening of the arteries), which can lead to heart attacks and strokes,” she said.
Smoking and PAD
Another bad habit — smoking — can lead to peripheral arterial disease, Dr. Steinbaum said. Smoking causes inflammation in your artery walls. Inflammation can lead to plaque forming in your arteries. The chief cause of PAD is plaque build-up in your peripheral arteries. The number of people who smoke cigarettes has been steadily declining since the turn of the century.
The good news is offset by a dramatic increase in the number of people who smoke pipe tobacco and cigars — it’s up more than 123 percent from 2000 to 2011.
Steinbaum cites a surprising reason for the rise in heart disease among women: working more. Today, she said, “women are juggling motherhood, wifehood, daughterhood, and being full-time workers. With the pressures of being in the workforce, more women are getting what was once a man’s disease — heart disease.” The 24/7 lifestyle leads to more stress, which is leading to more heart disease.
An Aging Population
Heart disease is also on the rise because America is aging. Women are at increased risk for heart disease after menopause, when estrogen production drops. When this happens, a woman’s level of bad cholesterol increases and her good cholesterol decreases. Cholesterol can cause fat to build up in the artery walls, leading to heart attacks and strokes.
You can’t change some risk factors for heart disease, like your age, gender, and family history. But you can change the lifestyle habits that are causing a dramatic rise in a number of people with heart disease, both cardiologists emphasized.
To reduce your risk, start eating a heart healthy diet and get regular exercise — at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week. “This is a choice of diet and exercise,” Steinbach said. “It’s just that simple.”