At least 200,000 Americans die needlessly each year due to heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure, and more than half of these deaths occur in people younger than 65, according to a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
All of these premature deaths could be prevented by quitting smoking, controlling blood pressure, keeping cholesterol levels in check and taking aspirin when recommended by a physician, public health experts said.
"These findings are really striking. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of deaths that don't have to happen," said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC. "It's possible for us to make rapid and substantial progress in reducing these deaths."
In the United States, about 800,000 people die of cardiovascular disease each year, according to the study published Tuesday in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death, and stroke is No. 4; along with hypertensive disease, they account for nearly 30% of all U.S. deaths, the CDC says.
Overall, the avoidable death rate for cardiovascular disease dropped 29% between 2001 and 2010, CDC researchers found. But that improvement was not shared equally by Americans of all ages, racial and ethnic backgrounds and states of residence.
For instance, the rate of avoidable deaths dropped 25% for people ages 65 to 74, yet it remained largely unchanged for people younger than 65, epidemiologist Linda Schieb and her colleagues discovered.
Also, the avoidable death rate among African Americans was 107 per 100,000 people — nearly twice the rate of 58 per 100,000 for whites and more than triple the rate of 34 per 100,000 for Asians and Pacific Islanders. The rate for Latinos was 45 per 100,000. The study's authors cautioned, however, that avoidable death rates for nonwhites and nonblacks may be underestimated due to inaccurate reporting on death certificates.
Across all races and ethnic groups, men had the highest risk of death, roughly double that of women.
The counties with the highest avoidable death rates were concentrated in the nation's Southern states, in a region that has long been described by health officials as the nation's "stroke belt." In 2010, states with the highest avoidable death rates included Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Louisiana. The study's authors cited high-sodium diets, lack of sidewalks and bike lanes and poor accessibility to quality healthcare as contributing factors.
"It's unfortunate, but your longevity may be more likely to be influenced by your ZIP Code than by your genetic code," Frieden said.
The study's authors speculated that some of the disparities were the result of uneven access to health insurance. The fact that Medicare eligibility begins at the age of 65 may help explain why people in the 65-74 age group were able to reduce premature deaths caused by heart disease and stroke while younger Americans did not. (The study excluded people older than 75 in its analysis of preventable deaths because average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.7 years.)
Smoking, lack of exercise, poor diet and excessive use of alcohol increased the risk of cardiovascular disease in all individuals, regardless of race, age and location, study authors noted.
"Many heart disease and stroke deaths could be avoided through improvements in lifestyle behaviors," they wrote.