Massachusetts Medical Society's Physician Focus

April 2012

Preventing Heart Disease and Stroke


  • Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States for both men and women, accounting for nearly 600,000 deaths annually. Every year, about 785,000 Americans suffer a first heart attack.

  • Stroke, or brain attack, is the fourth leading cause of death, accounting for more than 128,000 deaths a year. Every year, about 795,000 people have a stroke.

  • Heart disease and stroke cost the nation $444 billion each year in health care costs and lost economic productivity.

  • The Million Hearts campaign is a national initiative to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes over five years.

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Cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, causes more deaths than any other disease in the U.S. To reduce this burden, the Centers for Disease Control, along with state and local public health departments, have begun the Million Hearts initiative – a campaign to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes over the next five years.

The April 2012 edition of Physician Focus is a collaborative effort among the Massachusetts Medical Society, Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH), and Hopkinton Community Television to increase awareness among Massachusetts residents about the risk factors for cardiovascular disease and inform patients about the steps they can take to prevent the disease or reduce their risk.

Lauren Smith, M.D., M.P.H., Medical Director for DPH, joined program host and primary care physician Mavis Jaworksi, M.D. to discuss the impact of the disease on the Commonwealth and the department’s public education efforts to help residents.

The impact of cardiovascular disease on Massachusetts, said Dr. Smith, is much the same as with the nation as a whole. It is the number one cause of death in the state, causing one out of every three deaths, and accounting for one-third – some $3.5 billion – of total hospital costs.

The risk factors for cardiovascular disease are several -- and widespread -- among the patient population: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, lack of exercise, poor diet, being overweight or obese, high levels of stress, and smoking.

High blood pressure – called the “Silent Killer” because no symptoms accompany the condition - can be particularly insidious and is a major target of the local effort, says Dr. Smith.

“You can’t treat it and you can't do anything about it, if you don’t know you have it,” she says. She estimates that more than 400,000 adults in the state have high blood pressure and don’t know they have it. As a result, DPH has begun “Get Checked for the Health of It,” a campaign to prompt patients to get their blood pressure checked regularly and to learn about the options for treatment.

The effort to attack high blood pressure is also focused on raising awareness about sodium – salt – in the diet and its link to the condition. Paying strict attention to one diet’s, reading the nutrition labels of prepared foods bought at the grocery store, and substituting foods with low-salt content can all help to reduce high blood pressure. Learning which foods are high in salt – like bread and prepared and packaged foods – is also important to reduce salt intake.

The “Million Hearts” initiative of the Centers for Disease Control stresses the ABCS of prevention – Aspirin therapy, Blood pressure control, Cholesterol management, and Smoking cessation - and complements the efforts of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to attack cardiovascular disease and reduce the number of heart attacks and strokes.

Patients can take several steps, the physicians say, to improve their health: reduce stress; lose weight for overweight or obese; eat less salt; eat “lean and green” – lean meat and fish, low-fat dairy, more fruits and vegetables; get moving, with regular exercise or activity; and quit smoking. All of those are proven steps to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Watch the accompanying video for the full discussion, including conversation about recognizing the symptoms of stroke by the F-A-S-T method, simple ways to make healthful choices and changes in your diet, how to compare nutrition labels on food products, and how to incorporate exercise into your daily routine – all in the interests of reducing your risk for cardiovascular disease.

MMS/Richard Gulla

CDC Million Hearts Campaign

American Heart Association

National Stroke Association

Mass. Department of Public Health
With information in English, Spanish, and Portuguese
Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention and Control Program
Mass in Motion Program
Sodium and Salt

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Preventing Heart Disease and Stroke PSA

From left: Mavis Jaworksi, M.D., Lauren Smith, M.D., M.P.H.
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