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31 January 2019, 19:51 GMT

By Shamard Charles, M.D.

A surprising new report finds that nearly half of all Americans – 121 million adults – have some form of heart disease, a significant increase over the past three years. Although that worrying number, released Thursday by the American Heart Association, is largely due to changes in blood pressure guidelines – it is a warning about our lives increasingly sedentary, say leading physicians.

In 2017 hypertension, a major risk factor for heart disease, was redefined by the Heart Foundation as a blood pressure of 130/80, and decreased from 140/90. That change meant that millions of Americans were now considered a form of heart disease.

"As one of the most common and dangerous risk factors for cardiovascular disease and strokes, this overwhelming presence of high blood pressure can not be fired from the equation in our fight against heart disease," said Dr. Ivor J. Benjamin, volunteer chairman from the American Heart Association and director of the Cardiovascular Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, in a statement.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and claims more than 840,000 lives a year. After decades of steady decline, deaths increased by almost 4,000 cases from 2015 to 2016.

"It is a surprising number, but not overwhelmingly surprising given the increased prevalence of obesity, diabetes and sedentary lifestyle," said Dr. Jennifer Haythe, co-director of the Women's Center for Cardiovascular Health at the New York Presbyterian / Columbia University Medical Center. "The hope is that the numbers scare people into changing their lifestyle and that people go to the doctor to have some of their cardiovascular risk factors assessed."

Eighty percent of all cardiovascular diseases can be prevented by not smoking, controlling high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol levels, in addition to regular exercise and healthy eating.

The hope is that the numbers scare people into changing their lifestyle.

High blood pressure increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and many other problems. Only about half of people with hypertension have it under control, according to research.

Leading cardiologist Dr. Steven Nissen warns that the findings do not necessarily mean that heart conditions in the US are worsening. Overall, deaths from cardiovascular disease have fallen by 17.7 percent in the US in the past decades, largely as a result of declining smoking rates.

"What has happened is that the 120 million Americans listed here are reflecting a growing number of hypertensive patients on the basis of a change in blood pressure guidelines," said Nissen, president of the Cleveland Clinic cardiovascular medicine department. "Despite the claims of the study, we have made significant progress in this area and coronary artery disease has declined significantly in recent decades."

A diagnosis of high blood pressure does not automatically mean that medication is needed or that someone actually has coronary artery disease, a common type of heart disease in which the blood vessels are hardened and narrowed to the heart.

"A blood pressure of 130/80 is an important reminder to make lifestyle adaptations, which are risk factors that we can control, such as diabetes, smoking and diet," said Dr. Leslie Cho, cardiologist and director of the Women & # 39; s Cardiovascular Center at the Cleveland Clinic.

"If you lower your body weight, you can lower your blood pressure by about 8 [blood pressure points], and we're not talking about hundreds of pounds here. We are talking about as little as 5 percent of your body weight, "she added.

How to reduce the risk of heart disease

Regular physical exercise and following vegetable diets such as DASH, a meal plan that emphasizes fruits, vegetables and whole grains, appear to protect the heart.

Not all patients have the same optimal goals, but it is important to know blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol, Dr. Elizabeth Jackson, professor of cardiovascular disease at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, via e-mail to NBC News.

Haythe is of the opinion that the message about the public health of the report is important.

"Forty-eight percent of people will not die from a heart attack," Haythe said. "But the report does show that there is an increase in the prevalence of cardiovascular disease and emphasizes the importance of managing these risk factors with lifestyle changes and appropriate treatment."