UPDATE: An earlier version of this post contained incorrect figures for how many people failed to check off all the items on the cardio health checklist in 2005-2010 and 1988-1994. The figures have been corrected.
Maintaining good cardiovascular health boils down to doing seven things (notice I didn’t say seven “simple” things): not smoking; being physically active, maintaining normal blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol levels, staying at a normal weight and eating a healthy diet. If we all did those things, the American Heart Association tells us, far fewer of us would die from cardiovascular disease.
Alas, a study published March 16 in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that hardly any of us —a paltry 1.2 percent — manage to check off all seven items (or “metrics”) on our cardio health checklist. And 8.8 percent of us failed to achieve more than one in 2005-2010; that was up (but not in a good way) from 7.2 percent in 1988-1994.
Researchers from the CDC, Emory University and the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed data for 44,959 people ages 20 and older from the 1988-1994, 1999-2004 and 2005-2010 cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to determine the extent to which participants achieved those seven heart-health goals. Cardiovascular disease is now the number-one cause of mortality in the United States, the study notes, accounting for about 800,000 deaths a year.
Compared to meeting just one or none of the measures, meeting six or more was associated with a 51 percent reduction in risk of death overall, a 76 percent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and a 70 percent lower risk of dying from ischemic heart disease.
The trends the research detected aren’t encouraging: While the percentage of people who were current smokers dropped from about 28 percent to about 23 percent over the study period, the prevalence of people with “desirable” cholesterol levels and blood pressure didn’t change much at all. But the other metrics all changed for the worse, with healthful diet, normal BMI and normal blood glucose levels all declining “significantly,” the study reports.
A commentary on the research written by Donald Lloyd-Jones of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine notes that “Data from all of the recent studies indicate that the face of ideal cardiovascular health is a young, educated white woman.”
Lloyd-Jones says that points to, among other things, the need for large-scale societal changes to make it easier for people, particularly those of low socioeconomic status, to get exercise and gain access to healthful foods.
But the commentary ends with a suggestion that we not sit around waiting for those changes to take place. “A good start is for each person to assess his or her own cardiovascular health.”
Hear, hear! How do you measure up in the seven “metrics”?