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. Nearly 15,000 Alabamian deaths were attributed to heart disease and more than 3,000 lives were lost to cerebrovascular disease, including stroke, in 2022.
Lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medicine, can significantly reduce the risks of heart disease. About half of Americans (47%) have at least one of the three main risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking.
Risk factors for heart health are summarized as follows:
- High blood pressure: High blood pressure is often called the “silent killer” because it usually has no symptoms. Unfortunately, too many Alabamians don’t realize they have high blood pressure, and over time, it can cause damage 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 get your cholesterol checked. Your healthcare team can do a simple blood test, called a ‘lipid profile’, to measure your cholesterol levels.
- Smoking: Smoking can damage the heart and blood vessels, which increases the risk for heart diseases such as atherosclerosis and heart attack.
- Diabetes: The risk of death from heart disease for adults living with diabetes is higher than for adults without 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 take an active role in their health and learn what it takes to keep your 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 an opportunity to find out if they have risk factors for heart disease. Since 2009, the Public Employees’ Health Insurance Plan has offered preventive wellness screenings for government employees and their dependents as part of the Wellness Program. More than 45,000 workers and family members have been referred to health care providers for early treatment of identified high risks since January 2009.
The Ministry of Health offers programs to promote heart health. The Cardiovascular Health Program provides support, including automated blood pressure monitoring stations across the state, in partnership with senior centers, libraries and other community venues. The WISEWOMAN Program, available in many 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 15-55 who reside in select Alabama counties. Services include heart disease risk factor screenings, 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 health care 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 looking to improve their heart health by quitting tobacco products, the Alabama Tobacco Quitline offers free calls, free coaching and free nicotine patches (if medically and training eligible). Information, referrals and counseling are confidential and sessions are planned around a schedule that is convenient for the caller. Those enrolled in the counseling program can receive, if medically eligible, up to eight weeks of nicotine patches to help quit smoking. Call 1-800-QUIT NOW or go to quitnowalabama.com.
While heart disease can be debilitating or fatal, it is often preventable. By living a healthy lifestyle, you can help keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels in a healthy range and reduce your risk of heart disease and heart attack.
Information about making heart-healthy choices is available on ADPH’s Nutrition and Physical Activity website.
Scott Harris, MD, MPH
State Health Officer