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Keeping Heart Attacks Away

If you’ve been wondering whether cholesterol-lowering medications and other preventive measures really make a difference in whether or not you will suffer a heart attack, take cheer. During the past decade great progress has been made in reducing the heart-attack rate among older adults, according to a recent study of Medicare beneficiaries. But physicians say we must cultivate better diet and exercise habits or those gains may be eroded.

Hospital admissions for heart attack decreased 23% from 2002 to 2007, according to an analysis of data on 30 million Medicare fee-for-service patients published in the journal Circulation. Medicare data through the third quarter of 2009 indicates the decline has continued, the study authors say.  Many in the medical community believe that measures such as quit–smoking campaigns have contributed to the reduction in heart attacks.

“During the big antismoking campaigns there were improvements,” says UAB preventive cardiologist Todd M. Brown, M.D., M.S.P.H. “Also now we have better treatments for elevated blood pressure and high cholesterol, plus, those drugs have become more affordable. Statin medications to treat cholesterol, for example, became generic several years ago.”

Growing Obesity Epidemic Could Erode Gains
While pleased that preventive measures have helped bring down heart-attack rates, Dr. Brown and many other physicians believe a major public health campaign is needed to reduce growing obesity rates. People who are significantly overweight are at higher risk for developing not only heart disease, but also cancer and diabetes.

Dr. Brown advises his patients to exercise, eat a nutritious diet, and maintain a healthy weight. Many patients who have followed those suggestions have seen their health improve, sometimes to the point they no longer need certain medications.

“You don’t have to lose a huge amount of weight to see a benefit. Even 5 pounds can make a big difference in your health,” Dr. Brown says.

Losing a Pound a Week
He suggests those who need to reduce their weight focus on losing a pound a week rather than thinking in terms of large amounts of weight. One pound a week adds up to 26 pounds of weight loss after just 6 months, for example.

“Anyone can make enough small changes in their diet and exercise during the week to lose a pound. It’s very doable,” Dr. Brown says.

Josh Klapow, Ph.D., with UAB’s School of Public Health, offers additional tips for successfully adopting healthy new eating and exercise habits at his Healthy Habits Web site. To determine your personal risk for heart disease take UAB’s online Heart Risk Assessment.

September, by the way, is National Cholesterol Education Month, a good time to learn more about how to keep your cholesterol numbers where they should be.