Michael Holahan, Augusta Chronicle
In this Aug. 27, 2014 file photo, a laptop computer monitors a patient's heart function as he takes a stress test while riding a stationary bike in Augusta, Ga. A report released on Wednesday, Jan. 30 2019 estimates that nearly half of all U.S. adults have some form of heart or blood vessel disease, a medical milestone that's mostly due to recent guidelines that expanded how many people have high blood pressure.

February is Heart Disease Awareness Month, so you doubtless will hear a great deal in the coming days about heart health and the importance of taking care of cardiovascular health.

A new report released by the American Heart Association shows that 121 million American adults — almost half the population — have some form of heart disease. That’s a significant increase in victims of a disease that is the country’s leading cause of death, taking 840,000 lives per year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says heart disease and stroke cost the economy $1 billion per day in medical costs and lost productivity.

Part of the reason for the increase is the change in blood pressure guidelines. In 2017, the American Heart Association redefined hypertension, a major risk factor for heart disease, as a blood pressure of 130/80, lowering it from 140/90. Suddenly, several million more Americans from age 20 and up were considered at risk.

The change in blood pressure guidelines was not made haphazardly. High blood pressure raises the risk for heart attacks, strokes and other problems, and research shows that only about half of people with hypertension have it under control. In fact, after decades of steady decline, deaths from cardiovascular disease rose by almost 4,000 between 2015 and 2016.

A diagnosis of high blood pressure does not necessarily mean a person has cardiovascular disease or needs medication. But it is, doctors say, an important reminder to make some lifestyle changes. For example, losing just five percent of body weight can lead to a blood pressure drop of eight points.

Research shows that 80 percent of all cardiovascular disease can be prevented by not smoking; controlling high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol; and a regimen of regular exercise and healthy eating. Utah’s bad air, especially in winter months, is another risk factor of which people should be aware and take into account.

The new study sounds an alarm beyond the change in blood pressure guidelines. Doctors say it is also a warning about increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, a research cardiologist at the Intermountain Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, says Utah is still among the healthiest of states, due largely to less smoking. Too many Utahns, however, are significantly overweight, and that leads inexorably to high blood pressure, said Anderson. He encourages Utahns to “know your numbers:” Blood pressure, cholesterol/lipids, blood sugar and body mass index, or BMI. If people pay attention to the risk factors, it will go a long way toward preventing cardiovascular disease.

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Dr. Jennifer Haythe, a cardiologist at the New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, agrees. She finds the increase in incidents of heart disease “startling” but, she says, “the hope is that the numbers startle people into changing their lifestyles and that they go to the doctor to have their cardiovascular risk factors assessed.”

When heart health does fail, residents of the Mountain West can be assured that if treatment for heart disease is necessary, Utah boasts some of the country’s finest medical professionals and patient-care facilities.