Georgia's rate of early death from heart disease is one of the highest in a nationwide epidemic that hits hardest at African-Americans and Hispanics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, responsible for 29 percent of deaths every year. One out of every six heart disease deaths, though, occurs before the person reaches age 65, according to an analysis of the nation's 2001 death reports published in the CDC's weekly bulletin.
The agency singled out the early deaths for analysis both because they represent years of life lost and because the loss is considered unnecessary. Most heart disease in the United States is caused by lifestyle-related risk factors such as obesity and high blood pressure that can be reduced or reversed. "We know what to do to prevent early deaths," said Dr. George Mensah, chief of the CDC's cardiovascular health program. "Here we have one of six deaths happening that could be prevented."
In Georgia, one out of every four heart disease deaths occurs before age 65, the CDC said. That percentage put Georgia third in the country --- behind only Alaska and Nevada --- and ahead of every other state in the Southeast.
The finding reinforces a recognition in medicine that Southerners, and Southern blacks in particular, have rates of heart disease, stroke and cardiovascular disease far above the national norm.
"It is sobering that Georgia is [among those] leading the nation in premature heart disease and death, but it is not surprising," said Dr. Laurence Sperling, director of preventive cardiology at Emory University School of Medicine and author of a large study on heart disease in young adults. "In Georgia, we also have very high prevalence of the risk factors for heart disease: There is significant obesity, high blood pressure, smoking and diabetes. This shows the significant risk that our population is under in the state."
Seven of the 10 areas with the highest percentage of early death were in the South: South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky, and Washington, D.C., in addition to Georgia.
CDC researchers reviewed every available death certificate filed in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., during 2001, separated out those due to heart disease and sorted them by age. Of the 700,142 heart disease deaths that year, 117,346 --- 16.8 percent --- occurred among those younger than 65.
The study did not gauge the percentage of all deaths that were due to heart disease, said its lead author, research fellow Sam Oh, and because it covered only one year did not yield trends in death rates.
Nevertheless, it revealed "a considerable amount of disparity in premature death by race and by geography," he said.
The percentage of heart disease deaths that occurred before age 65 was higher for minorities than for whites. Among African-Americans and American Indians, one out of every three cardiac deaths came before old age; among Hispanics, the proportion was almost one in four. Among non-Hispanic whites, by contrast, the proportion of heart disease deaths that came in middle age or earlier was one in seven.
The early deaths collectively account for many years of lost life. Average life expectancy for blacks in the United States is 68.6 years for men and 75.5 years for women, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Average life expectancy for whites is 75 years for men, 80.2 years for women.
The far higher percentages of premature death among minorities can be traced to higher rates of the major cardiac risk factors, the CDC said. African-Americans are more likely than whites to have high blood pressure and to suffer from obesity and diabetes. Hispanics are less likely than whites to be treated for high blood pressure. American Indians have higher rates of tobacco use. And all three minority groups, the CDC said, have less access to health care and less health insurance coverage than whites do. The CDC did not provide racial and ethnic data for individual states.
"The discrepancy between various race and ethnic groups is very important and really needs to be addressed. But all races and ethnic groups in Georgia have too-high rates of premature death from heart disease," said Dr. Ken Powell, chief of chronic-disease epidemiology for the Georgia Division of Public Health.
Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution