In many ways, the day was like any other. Ben, who always ate a healthy diet and knew the importance of regular exercise, headed out for his usual morning jog. Sadly, when he returned home, my dear friend Ben Ruffin collapsed and died of a massive heart attack. He was just 64 years old.
Unfortunately, Ben’s story isn’t unique. We hear grim tales just like his every day in the news and through our friends and our families. Cardiovascular disease, which includes heart attack and stroke, is the leading cause of death for African-American men and women. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), each year it takes more than 100,000 people from their loved ones and families far too soon. More than 40 percent of all African-Americans have high blood pressure (hypertension), one of the most critical indicators of cardiovascular health.
When you think of someone having a heart attack, you might think of someone like Ben – a middle-aged man. The truth is cardiovascular health isn’t just a “man’s issue.” Seventy million Americans have heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the US . But did you know that over half of those – 54 percent – are women? Surprised? You’re not alone. Many women believe that cancer is more of a threat to their well-being, but they’re wrong. The AHA reports that nearly twice as many women in the United States die of heart disease and stroke as from all forms of cancer, including breast cancer.
Much of the burden of heart disease and stroke could be eliminated by reducing its major risk factors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those risk factors include high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, lack of exercise and poor nutrition. You’ve heard it before, but I’m going to say it again – lifestyle choices, like what you eat and how much you exercise, play such a critical role in preventing all kinds of potentially devastating diseases, not the least of which is heart disease. Even the ways you respond to stress may play a role in your cardiovascular health because unhealthy responses to stress may lead to other risk behaviors like smoking and overeating.
My friend Ben was 64 when he had his fatal heart attack – a little younger than the average age of 66, according to the CDC. But it’s not just those with gray hair that need to know how to keep their hearts healthy. In a recent survey published by the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers were surprised to find that most young adults did not know the major risk factors for heart disease. Many bad habits that are risk factors for developing heart disease later in life, like diet and exercise patterns and tobacco use, begin when we’re young. It takes years, and in some cases decades, for those bad habits to catch up with us. Young people need to know their future heart health is shaped by the choices they make today.
But, there are things that contribute to your risk for developing heart disease that you can’t control – like age and family history. In addition to lifestyle changes, your doctor may choose to prescribe prescription medicines. The good news is there are 146 new medicines in the pipeline that can treat or prevent dangerous cardiovascular conditions and stroke. Available heart disease and stroke treatments have helped reduce the death rate from these conditions by half over the last 30 years. The difference these treatments are making is astounding. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), as many as 815,000 more Americans would die from heart disease and 250,000 more would die from stroke every year without these medicines.
Patients who need help accessing their prescription medicines can turn to the Partnership for Prescription Assistance, a national clearinghouse of patient assistance programs sponsored by America ’s pharmaceutical companies. Since April of last year, the Partnership for Prescription Assistance has helped connect more than 3 million patients in need to programs that provide either free or nearly free medicines. For more information, patients can call 1-888-4PPA-NOW or visit www.pparx.org.
Awareness is the first step in combating heart attacks and stroke, and its precursors such as hypertension. Visit your physician regularly so they can catch any irregularities early. Like with my dear friend Ben – just because you look great on the outside, doesn’t mean your insides are keeping up. Eat right, exercise regularly, and if your doctor prescribes you a course of medicines make sure to take them exactly as prescribed. It’s important – skipping doses or forgetting refills can have a serious impact on the effectiveness of your medicine. We must remain vigilant because no matter what our age, sex or race, heart disease affects us all.