There is a decline in the number of deaths from heart attacks, strokes and other heart diseases, but this trend can be reversed by social factors including race, income, environment and education, according to a scientific statement from the American Heart Association (AHA).
The decline in cardiovascular deaths are attributed to the advances in prevention and treatment, but these benefits have not been shared equally across economic, racial, and ethnic groups in the United States, according to the statement, published in the association's journal Circulation
"The steady decline of death from cardiovascular disease that began in the 1970s might be coming to an end. Overall population health cannot improve if parts of the population do not benefit from improvements in prevention and treatment," said Edward P. Havranek, chair of the writing group and a cardiologist at Denver Health Medical Center.
Circumstances in which people are born, grow, live, work and age come under social determinants. Several areas in which clear associations between societal factors and cardiovascular health have been shown in the statement. Among those:
- A top indicator of one's socioeconomic status is education. It affects what kind of job a person has, their access to healthcare, income, stress and more. According to Havranek, research shows that people with lower educational levels die younger, largely due to cardiovascular disease.
- Risk of cardiovascular disease is higher when the income is lower. In a study of more than 500,000 men, researchers found a 40% to 50% decrease in risk of cardiovascular death, with increasing levels of family income.
- In the US there is an overlap between race and poverty, which is seen especially among African Americans. While some differences in cardiovascular risk among races might be explained by genetics and biology, there are other factors. "Whether or not bias and prejudice lead to less care or poorer care is an area that people are actively studying. There also is evidence that people who experience the chronic stressors, such as racism, might have higher blood pressure as a result," said Havranek.
- The neighborhoods in which people live likely affect their heart disease risk, support studies. "We need to learn more about why that is, but contributing factors could include less access to healthy food, less opportunity for physical activity, higher stress levels with higher crime, noise, traffic, etc.," said Havranek.
- Prenatal and early childhood development. One's tendency to develop high blood pressure and diabetes as adults is some way determined by things that happen before birth and through early life, suggests evidence. Children with low birth weight tend to have structural changes to the heart and kidneys that may predispose them to high blood pressure and diabetes, when they're adults. A study found that lower risk for heart disease 30 years later was seen among preschool children who were in an enhanced daycare program, where they were educated, referred to a pediatrician and received healthy meals, compared to preschoolers in usual daycare. "There may be an opportunity to prevent adults' chronic illnesses by doing a better job of taking care of preschool kids," Havranek said.
- Access to healthcare. Health insurance access could improve significantly with the Affordable Care Act. "But we still need to have a healthcare system that is welcoming to people who might fall into disadvantaged groups, where people can find primary care doctors and can get timely care," he noted.
There is an expected increase of 10% in the number of cardiovascular disease cases in the United States between 2010 and 2030. According to the statement the social dynamic of cardiovascular disease is helping to drive the increase. Addressing the social influences, as well as biological and genetic influences, on cardiovascular health in America is necessary to achieve what the American Heart Association calls the inclusive "culture of health."
"Failure to address the social dynamic of cardiovascular disease will compromise the American Heart Association's 2020 Impact Goal to improve cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent while reducing deaths from cardiovascular diseases and stroke by 20 percent," Havranek said.
Also the statement suggests that doctors and consumers pay attention to how social factors might impact cardiovascular health and recommends specific steps for improving social factors that could negatively impact cardiovascular health. These include a focus on a new kind of advocacy.
"We're used to public health programs that educate people to know their blood pressure or cholesterol numbers. We're less comfortable with public health programs focused on getting three-year-olds into daycare programs, which may improve their health down the road. We might be less accustomed to (but need) public health programs that look at how urban planners can improve neighborhoods that are seeing higher rates of cardiovascular disease," he said.