A closer look: Americans at risk for heart disease and stroke

Someone in this country dies from cardiovascular disease every 34 seconds. But despite that fact, many people are still underestimating their risk for heart disease and stroke, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The poll found that an alarmingly high number of people--about one third of the population aged 35 to 65--is unaware of the full extent of their risk for cardiovascular disease, namely heart attack and strokes. In addition, a similar number of respondents failed to recognize the crucial link between a family history of heart disease and stroke and their own personal risk for these diseases.

In the survey of 1,000 adults aged 35 to 65, 32 percent of respondents did not consider themselves to be at risk for a heart attack or stroke, although they did list at least one personal risk factor for these diseases. In addition, 30 percent who said they had a family history of heart disease or stroke also said they weren't at risk for these diseases.

"These Americans fail to realize the essential role that a family history of heart disease plays in determining their personal risk. The perception isn't in line with reality," says Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, director of the Preventative and Rehabilitative Cardiac Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "One study found that a family history can elevate an individual's risk to over seven times that of someone without a family history."

Not only are those with a family history not fully aware of its impact on their personal risk, but the poll also discovered that many of them have additional risk factors, further escalating their risk. For example, among those with a family history, 70 percent said they had high blood pressure and 70 percent said they had high cholesterol. Even more alarming, 65 percent of those with a family history said they smoke, 68 percent said they are obese and 63 percent said they don't exercise.

While a family history of heart disease and stroke is a serious concern, it doesn't have to be a deadly one. People who know that heart disease or stroke is lurking in their family tree have a potentially lifesaving glimpse into their future, as they can modify their lifestyle to help prevent these diseases.

Research has proven that making positive lifestyle changes--like quitting smoking, eating a low-fat diet, exercising and controlling blood pressures--can significantly lower an individual's risk for a heart attack or stroke. According to the American Heart Association, if someone who smokes a pack or more of cigarettes a day quits smoking, in three years their risk of death from heart disease or stroke will be virtually the same as someone who never smoked. Research also shows that people who exercise have a 45 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those who don't exercise.

"People with a family history of these diseases have to make an extra effort to control other risk factors," says Dr. David Tepper, cardiologist at the Hollywood Memorial Hospital and Medical Center in Hollywood, Florida. "The risk of heart attacks and strokes can be reduced when people see their physicians to accurately evaluate their risk and begin making the necessary lifestyle changes."

According to a 1994 Gallup poll, one in two Americans age 35 - 65 has a family history of heart disease or stroke -- meaning they could be at risk for these diseases. Family history was the most prevalent risk factor among respondents.

54% of Americans have family history of heart disease or stroke
50% don't exercise
43% are overweight
40% smoke
38% have high cholesterol
35% have high blood pressure


By Chris Kilbane

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