Harvard Heart Letter

Heart Beat: A vanishing breed

Imagine, for a moment, that you are sitting in a room with several thousand so-called average Americans, plucked at random from all states and all walks of life. What percentage of the people in that room has the right stuff to help ward off a heart attack or stroke or keep from developing some other form of cardiovascular disease? Barely 8%.

Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came up with that number from in-depth national surveys of adults between the ages of 25 and 74. The researchers looked for this low-risk profile: not a smoker; total cholesterol under 200 milligrams per deciliter without the use of a statin or other cholesterol-lowering medicine; blood pressure under 120/80 without help from blood pressure medicine; no diagnosis of diabetes; and weight in the healthy range. Only one in 12 people filled the bill (Circulation, Sept. 29, 2009).

Just as alarming, the percentage of such healthy Americans has taken a turn for the worse. Once on the increase, it has been dwindling since the 1990s, even as our spending on health care continues to climb. Excess weight and inactivity appear to be driving the trend.

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