The Joplin Globe, Mo.
Even during the darkest days of the pandemic, Joplin’s two regional hospitals were urging people with issues unrelated to COVID-19 to visit for treatment.
The reason was simple: While the coronavirus dominated headlines worldwide, people were still suffering and dying from a number of common chronic diseases, including heart disease. COVID-19 killed more than 400,000 Americans in 2020, but heart disease killed nearly twice that number, with a person dying of cardiovascular disease every 36 seconds.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, heart disease still reigns as America’s leading cause of death.
“We’ve been concerned that people are delaying or declining health (procedures) during the pandemic,” said Angela Breer, communications director for the American Heart Association. “We have research that shows emergency room visits are down 42%, (while) over half of the individuals in the study were more afraid of contracting COVID-19 than suffering a heart attack or stroke.”
Worse, 1 out of 4 adults experiencing a heart attack, Breer said, would rather stay at home than risk getting infected with COVID-19 at the hospital.
“Without your health, you have nothing,” Breer said. “Being healthy on the front end can save lives, and you have the power to drive that health change in your life.”
Now for the good news: Heart disease is preventable.
“There is always a positive message, and that is 80% of cardiovascular disease can be prevented,” Breer said. “There are very few things in this world we can control at 80%. Again, knowing your numbers, moving more, not smoking and knowing your family history are all important ways to help prevent heart disease.”
COVID-19 and the hearts
The coronavirus has changed the way people now live and has encouraged millions to adopt unhealthy behaviors such as stress eating and forgoing regular exercise outdoors. Combined, these situations can adversely affect a person’s heart health.
Dr. Frank Kim, an interventionist cardiologist at Freeman Health System, said the coronavirus has taken and will continue to take a huge toll on human life, both in the U.S. and around the world. And its influence will directly and indirectly affect rates of cardiovascular disease prevalence and deaths for years to come.
That’s why it’s so important, he said, that people pay attention at all times to their body’s aches and pains, which is the body’s way of communicating problems that might need treatment from a health professional.
“That’s why you have to listen to your body and your heart, and if you have symptoms of fatigue, shortness of breath or inability to function at your normal capacity — walking up stairs and you’re short of breath — you need to alert your physician,” Kim said.
To prevent those potentially deadly outcomes, regular exercise remains key, he said.
“My belief,” he said, “is being physically active is the first major step toward heart health.”
Exercising about 150 minutes a week, he said during a recent news conference inside one of Freeman’s catheterization labs, “would reduce your chances of having a heart attack or stroke.”
Good exercise equipment to use include using a treadmill, walking outdoors, jogging outdoors and lifting weights. Doing all of these things, he said, can lead to a stronger, healthier heart that will lower your blood pressure and heart rate.
Prevention is key, said Michele Carey, a nurse practitioner with Mercy and an American Heart Association volunteer.
“Know what your risk factors for cardiovascular disease are,” she said. “We need to maintain an active lifestyle while still maintaining social distancing and practicing good hygiene. Follow a heart-healthy diet and decreasing stress levels, whether that be through meditation, journaling, exercising, listening to music or something else. If at any time there is a question or concern, do not be afraid to reach out to your primary care provider or cardiologist for guidance.”
Healthy lifestyle tips
About 3 out of 4 heart disease cases could be avoided with overall healthy, or healthier, lifestyles. Aside from regular exercise, other health behaviors that can lower the risk of heart disease include:
—Avoiding tobacco (and secondhand smoke).
—Maintaining a healthy weight.
—Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and low in unhealthy fats and red or processed meat.
—Getting screening tests for certain cancers and heart disease risk factors. Talk with a doctor about which apply to you.
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