American Heart Month celebrates 50th anniversary - - The News for South Mississippi

Celebrating hearts in February carries on 50-year tradition

We have learned a lot about our hearts in the last half century, but researchers admit we still have a long way to go. (Source: Donna Schichler/MGN) We have learned a lot about our hearts in the last half century, but researchers admit we still have a long way to go. (Source: Donna Schichler/MGN)

(RNN) - On the 50th anniversary of the first American Heart Month, the number of Americans who still die each year due to heart disease is almost as scary as the number of people who mistakenly think their hearts are healthy.

"If you ask all Americans if they're in ideal cardiovascular health, about 38 to 39 percent say they are when, in fact, less than 1 percent of them are," said Rose Marie Robertson, chief science and medical officer for the American Heart Association. "And, of course, some of them feel that way because they aren't having any symptoms. Ideal cardiovascular health means not only that you aren't having those symptoms of disease, but you're also doing correct things to prevent them."

The American Heart Association calls it Life's Simple 7: regular activity, lowering cholesterol, a healthy diet, managing blood pressure, maintaining healthy weight, reducing blood sugar and avoiding tobacco.

Even when people are mindful to do all these things, there are still misconceptions about how early to take heart health seriously.

Robertson said when studying the bodies of young people who died of causes not related to their hearts, doctors often found hardened arteries - a condition called atherosclerosis.

Using that information, researchers found the causes of heart disease begin as early as the teenage years for men and in the early 20s for women, though symptoms often don't appear until several years later.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation declaring February 1964 the inaugural American Heart Month, 54 percent of all deaths in this country were due to diseases of the heart and cardiovascular system.

That proclamation coincided with another major event in medical history. On Jan. 11, 1964 the Surgeon General, Dr. Luther L. Terry, announced an advisory committee's conclusion that cigarette smoking was a major contributor to lung disease, especially cancer. Four years earlier, research from the Framingham Heart Study at Boston University revealed cigarettes increased the risk of heart disease.

The rate of deaths from heart disease since the mid-'60s has decreased from more than half to one quarter, even though there are some 125 million more people in the country.

Part of that progress is because in addition to more knowledgeable medical experts, there is also a more educated general public.

A good example of that is the knowledge that more women die of heart-related diseases every year than men and the increased focus on women's heart health.

Feb. 7 was the 10th anniversary of Go Red for Women, a day where people are encouraged to wear the color to raise awareness.

During the past decade, a lot of progress has been made in educating women about their health risks.

"When we began this particular campaign, about 13 percent of women could tell you that heart disease was the No. 1 killer of women," Robertson said. "Now well over 50 percent can."

However, there is still a long way to go in treating a disease that kills more people than all forms of cancer combined.

More than one-quarter of the population is living with heart disease. It's a double-edged sword that shows more people can live longer lives with these problems, but it also shows a greater number of people have risk factors. By comparison, 5 percent of the population was diagnosed with heart disease 50 years ago.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention built an interactive map that breaks down heart disease in numerous demographic categories.

The Deep South has a reputation for leading the nation in obesity-related ailments, including heart disease. But the map showed a concentration of deaths from 2008 through 2010 that struck right through - for lack of a better term - the heart of the country. The problem reached up through the Midwest in states like Ohio, Indiana and Michigan and topped out in New York, which showed a heart disease mortality rate comparable to any state in the South.

Those demographics were not lost on Robertson, who acknowledged medical advancements have bypassed a significant portion of the population.

"We've really aimed at all Americans in the last decade," she said. "While deaths from heart disease dropped by more than 25 percent across the country, it depended on where you looked and who you looked at. A black man in Mississippi didn't share in that benefit, so we're really working hard to make sure the important education and motivational messages are spread across the country."

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