Heart disease leading cause of death in Arkansas

Published: Apr. 24, 2022 at 2:34 PM CDT
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JONESBORO, Ark. (KAIT) - Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Arkansas, but like many of the state’s leading health issues, a lot of cases are preventable.

Dr. Barry Tedder is a cardiologist at St. Bernards Medical Center, he works with patients on the prevention and intervention of various forms of heart disease.

“Heart disease is manifested by different things, if you say heart disease, but coronary artery disease or coronary vascular disease is the development of blockage or atherosclerosis in the arteries, either to the heart, the legs, the brain, anywhere,” said Tedder.

In 2020, Arkansas was ranked fourth in the nation for most heart disease deaths. Tedder said heart disease can affect anyone at any age.

“You think about heart attacks in your 60s and 70s, but nowadays we’re seeing them 30s, 40s, 50s. So, we really need to start in our late 20s, early 30s with a prevention plan for cardiovascular disease,” said Tedder. “It’s really important to see your physician and have them screen you for your risk for cardiovascular disease. You know we really should be talking about a long-term risk like a 30-year risk instead of just five to ten years. We should be assessing ourselves as patients or individuals for what the 30-year risk, or long-term risk of having a heart attack.”

Todd Pettit knows first-hand how heart disease can impact a person’s life. He suffered a major heart attack when he was in his early 30s.

“I was actually at home, by myself, reading a book,” said Pettit. “I had all the classic symptoms of a heart attack: chest pain, shoulder pain, neck pain. And it came sudden.”

Tedder is the cardiologist who treated Pettit in the emergency room when he had his heart attack 25 years ago.

“He had taken me to the cath lab and I think I got three stints and something else, angioplasty maybe, as well,” said Pettit. “And the first time I really knew anything, can remember a lot, I had woken up in the ICU at St. Bernards.”

“We recognized at that time that he had what’s called familial hyperlipidemia, which is an inherited problem which is very common,” said Tedder.

Tedder said not every heart attack is due to genetics like Pettit’s.

In fact, most heart disease cases can be prevented.

“It’s predicted or thought that 80% of chronic diseases, which is what we deal with mostly, are due to lifestyle and could be modified,” said Tedder.

According to the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care, Arkansas has the fifth-highest rate of risk factors in the nation, and risk factors can vary greatly.

“Most of the cardiovascular diseases we see are related to diabetes, or pre-diabetes, or obesity. Obesity is terrible in our community and nationwide, and that contributes to the pre-diabetes/diabetes aspect that really leads to most or a lot of heart disease,” said Tedder.

There are things people can do at home to help prevent or lower the risk for heart disease.

“Being healthy, active, walking, exercising, and eating your vegetables as your mom told you. And eating less processed foods and sugary foods, then there’s a much greater likelihood that you’re not going to end up in the ER with a heart attack over time,” said Tedder.

However, he does understand the challenge to find healthier options for those in rural communities.

“We are in a food desert sometimes where you just don’t have access to quality food at an affordable price,” said Tedder. “It is a difficult problem that needs to be addressed, and to teach people how to prepare food because people are growing up not knowing how to prepare food very easily.”

Another struggle is continuing to choose healthier foods when they are available.

“Sometimes I have years or months that I struggle with the diet and exercising program,” said Pettit. “And maintaining where I need to be and know I need to be, but it’s something I feel like I have to do and is something I have to complete for myself and my family.”

Tedder stresses that while a healthy lifestyle will help with prevention, there is no cure for heart disease.

“You have to recognize that just because you put a stint in or bypass a patient it does not cure heart disease. It starts developing in our late teens when we start developing minor plaques in the arteries, and over time,” said Tedder. “So it’s a slow, progressive disease.”

That makes taking care of yourself and getting regular testing key in lowering the risk for heart disease.

“It can touch anybody’s life. From any age, from a young age to an older age. And it’s something we ought to all pay attention to and go get screened for and pay attention to pains and pay attention to what your body is telling you,” said Pettit. “It’s a simple, simple check, blood test. And if you do have complications with that blood test, your doctor will know where to send you and how to address it.”

You can find tips to lower the risk for heart disease here.

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