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CDC: One-Fourth Of Heart Attack And Stroke Deaths Preventable

There has been more progress in lowering deaths from heart attacks and strokes among people who qualify for Medicare than those who are younger.
There has been more progress in lowering deaths from heart attacks and strokes among people who qualify for Medicare than those who are younger.

Could health insurance be the remedy for 200,000 deaths a year from heart attacks and strokes? It might be a big part of the cure.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one-quarter of the 800,000 deaths from those causes could be avoided, according to a report released Tuesday.

It's worth trying. "Nothing is more important than reducing heart disease and stroke," CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said in a briefing for journalists.

They are still big killers, even though the death rate for heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure fell by 29 percent between 2001 and 2010.

Getting high cholesterol and hypertension under control would help a lot. And people who see doctors regularly are more apt to know about blood pressure and cholesterol problems — and to do something about them.

That's where insurance coverage comes in. If you have health coverage, you're more likely to go to the doctor in the first place.

The decline in death rates has been faster among people who are eligible for Medicare. Among people 65-74, the rate dropped the most. Among those who are younger the rate declined less.

Only 2 percent of people 65 and up were without health coverage over the study period. For those 18-64, some 22 percent were uninsured in 2010, up from 17 percent in 2001.

Now, it's true, or course, that the death rates from these causes are higher for older people. In 2010, there were 402 deaths from heart disease, stroke and hypertension per 100,000 people aged 64-74, but that's down from 640 in 2001. For those aged 55-64, the comparable rate was about 179 in 2010, down from 243 in 2001.

"Simple things make a big difference," Frieden said. Besides managing cholesterol and blood pressure, quitting smoking is a biggie. Taking aspirin regularly — when it's recommended by a doctor — can also help.

And will the federal health law requiring that just about everyone have insurance make a difference in death rates from cardiovascular disease? Frieden thinks so, telling a reporter, "We do expect that if people 40 to 64 get insured, get care and get good care, we will see significant reductions."

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Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.
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