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Cardiovascular Health

Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention Remain Priorities During the Pandemic

Laurence Sperling, M.D., FACC, FACP, FAHA, FASPC,

Executive Director, Million Hearts®, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Betsy L. Thompson, M.D., M.S.P.H., Dr.P.H.

RADM and Assistant Surgeon General, U.S. Public Health Service, and Director, Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, CDC

Even in the midst of a pandemic, heart attacks and strokes still happen. More than 1.6 million heart attacks and strokes occur in the United States each year, and cardiovascular disease is responsible for more than 870,000 deaths. Heart disease and stroke remain the first and fifth leading causes of death in the United States, respectively.

During the early months of the pandemic, we observed a worrisome reduction in emergency care for life-threatening heart problems. A recent CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) cited significant nationwide declines in emergency department visits for heart attacks (down 23 percent) and strokes (down 20 percent) during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As reported, people might be delaying or avoiding seeking medical care because they fear being exposed to COVID-19, they’ve been told to minimize non-urgent health care, or they are complying with stay-at-home orders. 

But heart attacks and strokes are medical emergencies. If you or a family member are showing signs of a heart attack or stroke, call 9-1-1 immediately. Time is of the essence and hospitals are prepared to deliver safe medical care.

Cardiovascular care counts

People with serious heart conditions are at increased risk for severe COVID-19 illness, so there is no more important time than now to focus on cardiovascular care and prevention. 

Another recent MMWR showed that among COVID-19 patients: hospitalizations were six times higher, need for intensive care was five times higher, and deaths were 12 times higher among those with serious underlying medical conditions — including heart disease — compared to those without underlying conditions.  

As reported in the MMWR, fewer people are seeking routine medical care during the pandemic, which may harm their ability to manage risk factors, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Neglecting heart health can increase your risk for a heart attack or stroke, so it’s important to take heart medications as prescribed, and reach out to your medical team with questions or concerns. 

Considerations for minority groups

Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. Social determinants of health have historically prevented these groups from having fair opportunities for economic, physical, and emotional health. 

Some of the many inequities include discrimination; healthcare access and utilization; occupation; educational, income, and wealth gaps; and housing. These factors and others are associated with more COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in areas where racial and ethnic minority groups live, learn, work, play, and worship. 

These inequities have also contributed to higher rates of some medical conditions that increase one’s risk of severe illness from COVID-19, including heart disease. 

Influenza vaccination and heart disease prevention

In addition to helping prevent influenza (flu), getting a flu vaccine helps prevent cardiac events, adding to the benefits of quitting smoking or getting your high blood pressure under control. CDC recommends flu vaccination for nearly everyone, but it’s especially important for people living with heart disease and certain chronic conditions. 

Viral illnesses, such as seasonal flu, increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke and hospitalization. Flu vaccination has been associated with lower rates of some cardiac events among people with heart disease, especially among those who had a cardiac event in the past year. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to get a flu vaccine to protect yourself, your family, and your community. 

An additional benefit of reducing flu illness is that it could reduce the overall burden on our medical systems — such as reducing the number of people going to doctors’ offices and hospitals. This could also help preserve medical resources needed for the care of COVID-19 patients.

CDC’s Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention and Million Hearts® — a national initiative to prevent 1 million heart attacks and strokes by 2022 — are committed to heart disease and stroke prevention. 

Every event prevented is an important step forward. Every heart is one in a million. 

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