Although obesity rates continue to rise and unhealthy foods remain popular, Americans still have reason to be optimistic about heart health. A report published in the American Heart Association's journal Circulation revealed that hospital visits and deaths from heart disease and stroke - both major concerns in senior care - have fallen greatly in recent years.
Heart-related hospitalizations dropping
Researchers analyzed data on nearly 34 million people receiving Medicare and found that fewer people were being hospitalized for heart-related problems. Between 1999 and 2011, hospitalizations for unstable angina, which often precedes a heart attack, fell nearly 84 percent, the largest drop of any condition that the team studied. Smaller, but still significant, decreases were found for other conditions affecting the heart as well. Hospitalizations for heart attacks dropped nearly 40 percent, and those for ischemic stroke fell more than 33 percent.
Even when people were hospitalized for these issues, they were much less likely to die from them by the end of the decade. The number of people who died within a year of being hospitalized for heart attacks fell 23 percent, while deaths within a year of hospital visits for heart failure and stroke dropped 13 percent.
Lifestyle makes a big difference
Some of the decrease in hospitalizations and deaths could be attributed to medical advances, but according to lead author Harlan Krumholz, no single treatment could claim responsibility for the news.
"Interestingly, these improvements happened in a period when there were no real 'miracle' clinical advancements. Rather, we saw consistent improvements in the use of evidence-based treatments and medications and an increase in quality improvement initiatives using registries and other data to track performance and support improvement efforts - as well as a strong emphasis on heart-healthy lifestyles and behaviors," Krumholz said.
Doctors' improved ability to detect and treat high blood pressure was cited as one development that helped bring down the hospitalization rate. More people using statins and abstaining from smoking also contributed to the positive change, according to Krumholz.
Smoking is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. It could also be one of the easiest to control. Other avoidable risk factors include poor diet, poor hygiene and physical inactivity. Obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and chronic stress may also contribute to heart disease, but can be more difficult to manage.
Help for the heart
The Mayo Clinic recommended quitting smoking as the first step to a heart-healthy lifestyle. Tobacco impairs heart function in a number of ways, including raising blood pressure by adding carbon monoxide to smokers' blood and damaging the body's blood vessels. Abstinence is best, but the clinic said that even cutting back could have benefits. People who stop smoking entirely can return to nearly the same heart disease risk of a nonsmoker within about five years.
Getting exercise and maintaining a nutritious diet, two pillars of a healthy lifestyle, can also have benefits for heart health. The clinic recommended at least 30 minutes of exercise per day on most days of the week, although workouts don't need to be particularly strenuous or regimented. Even daily activities that require movement, such as cleaning or maintaining a garden at a retirement community, could protect heart health.
Healthy diets often go hand in hand with exercise, and the two can complement each other well. Both contribute to weight loss, and people who avoid unhealthy foods often find that they have more energy to exercise. Saturated and trans fat in particular should be avoided, meaning those who want to take care of their heart should reduce their intake of red meat, fast food and packaged snacks as much as possible. On the other hand, avocado, nuts and olives can lower bad cholesterol, making them choice sources of fats.