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Heart Disease Health Center

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Heart Risk Factors on the Rise Again

Hypertension, Diabetes, and Obesity Are Increasing After Decades of Improvement
WebMD Health News

Sept. 16, 2009 -- The percentage of Americans without major heart disease risk factors rose during the 1980s and 1990s, but our health is declining again, a study shows.

Though the percentage of smokers is still heading south, the number of people with obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure is increasing, shows the study published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

"It's not good news," study researcher Earl S. Ford, MD, MPH, of the U.S. Public Health Services at the CDC, tells WebMD. "The effect of all this stuff is going to be determined by the balance of the risk factors."

In a news release, Ford says that "from a preventive health point of view, it's important that individuals achieve as many of these [low-risk] goals as possible, and it's disappointing that less than 10 percent of Americans are meeting them all."

Trends in Heart Disease Risk Factors

About one in 12 adults in the U.S. had a low-risk profile for cardiovascular disease during the 1994-2004 period, he tells WebMD, and that needs to improve.

Ford adds in the news release that the study "suggests that achieving low risk status for most U.S. adults remains a distant and challenging goal. Unfortunately, the limited strides that were made toward this goal during the 1970s and 1980s were eroded by the increases in excess weight, diabetes and hypertension during more recent decades."

Ford's team analyzed data on adults aged 25-74 in four national surveys, examining the prevalence of a low-risk profile for heart disease, which includes all of the following:

  • Never smoked, or former smoker.
  • Total cholesterol below 200 and not using cholesterol-lowering drugs.
  • Blood pressure below 120/80 without using blood pressure-lowering medications.
  • Not overweight or obese, as reflected in a body mass index (BMI) less than 25.
  • Never diagnosed with diabetes.

In many studies, the researchers say, people with a low-risk profile have lower health care costs and are far less likely to develop cardiovascular disease.

In the present analysis, they found that 4.4% of adults had all five of the low-risk factors between 1971 and 1975. That rose to 5.7% in the 1976-1980 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and rose again to 10.5% in 1988-1994. But the trend did not continue and the proportion of adults rating at low risk in 1999-2004 fell to 7.5%.

"Until the early '90s, we were moving in a positive direction, but then it took a turn and we're headed in a negative direction," Ford says in a news release. "When you look at the individual factors, tobacco use is still headed in the right direction and so are cholesterol levels, although that has leveled off. The problem is that blood pressure, BMI and diabetes are all headed in the wrong direction."

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