Heart health disparities in the U.S.: what are we doing wrong?

By Jackie Nappo

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On the week of Valentine’s Day, it’s safe to assume that people are thinking about hearts. No, we’re not talking about romance. We’re talking about cardiovascular health, and we’ve found some pretty disturbing statistics regarding health disparities and cardiovascular disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. The CDC reported that heart disease cost the U.S. about $219 billion each year from 2014-2015, including the costs to health care services, medicine, and lost productivity due to the death toll.

As the wealthiest nation in the world, what do we do? Our health care system certainly doesn’t help, and we know that exorbitant deductibles, unrealistic premiums, and high drug costs all contribute to the problem. But what about everything else?

Are we creating a system people can thrive and avoid the terrors of heart disease, outside of the health care arena? The short answer is no.

The highest risk factors for heart disease, according to the CDC’s website, are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, and poor diet. But research shows that there are environmental conditions that can make people more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, paving the way for heart disease.

A study from the American Heart Association (AHA) showed that fear of deportation could DOUBLE (yes, double) the risk of developing high blood pressure. The study followed 572 immigrant women from Mexico who were living in California.

After four years, those who did not have high blood pressure at the outset of the study were twice as likely to be diagnosed with the condition if they reported moderate or significant worries about deportation. This is one example of how public policy can have incredibly negative impacts on entire communities, widening health disparities.

Another AHA study, showed that communities that suffered the most after the Great Recession had dramatic increases in heart disease deaths in the years that followed, as compared with communities that faced lower levels of economic hardship.

The study looked at county death rates from cardiovascular disease between 2010 and 2015 in adults, and compared those rates with each county’s Distressed Communities Index. In counties with the least economic distress, the death toll was mostly flat at 62.6 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2010 and 61.5 deaths in 2015. Counties with higher levels of distress saw the death toll rise from 122 deaths per 100,000 people in 2010 to 127.6 in 2015.

This is, in no small part, related to how we treat health care and policy in our society. Potential remedies for these could be expanding Medicaid, a more just immigration system, affordable prescription drugs for those who do have high blood pressure, and expanding SNAP or food stamp programs so residents can make sure they can access healthy foods to protect against these risk factors.

There are a number of ways that our government fails residents, and it will always be the most vulnerable, undocumented immigrants and low-income residents, who will suffer the most. Heart disease, which is responsible for 1 in 4 deaths annually, is no exception.

AHA studies can be found here and here.

CDC info can be found here.