The government wants to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes over the next five years, and they propose to do it by getting people to focus on just four crucial steps:
1) Take a low-dose aspirin (81 mg.) every day if you're at high risk for heart attack or stroke.
2) Get your blood pressure under control.
3) Control your cholesterol.
4) Stop smoking.
That's the heart of the $200 million Million Hearts plan announced this month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
They call it the "ABC'S" of cardiac health -- Aspirin, Blood pressure, Cholesterol, Smoking -- and they figure if they can get people to do something about these risk factors, it can sharply reduce the number of deaths from heart disease.
Currently, fewer than half of Americans at risk for heart attacks and strokes take a low-dose aspirin daily. Public health officials want to get that up to 65 percent by 2017.
In addition, fewer than half of adults with hypertension have their blood pressure under control. The goal is to increase that to 65 percent as well.
As for high cholesterol, only about a third of adults are doing anything to lower their LDL levels; the government would like to triple that amount.
The smoking goal is more modest. About 19 percent of adults today still smoke. Federal health officials would like to lower that to 17 percent by 2017.
Getting more Americans to make these changes -- with help from their doctors, pharmacies and others -- would improve the grim statistics on heart disease.
More than 2 million Americans have a heart attack or stroke annually, and 800,000 of them die, according to the American Heart Association, one of the many organizations taking part in the government initiative.
Or, to put it another way, heart disease kills roughly the same number of Americans each year as cancer, lower respiratory diseases (including pneumonia), and accidents combined.
For older men, the average age for a heart attack is 66, says the heart association; those who have heart attacks under age 65 die within eight years. Heart disease is also the leading cause of death among women age 65 and older.
Plus, heart disease is expensive, costing the country $444 billion annually in lost productivity and medical spending, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said during a recent news conference. Treating heart disease and stroke costs $1 out of every $6 in healthcare costs.
To help consumers improve their heart health, Walgreens pharmacy chain has agreed to provide expanded blood pressure testing at no charge plus a consultation with a pharmacist or clinic nurse practitioner.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will also team up with pharmacists to provide additional advice and support to patients diagnosed with high blood pressure.
As for why these four steps are so important, an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine put it simply: "Improving management of the ABC'S can prevent more deaths than any other clinical preventive services."
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