"It's jaw-dropping. It's really substantial," The Early Show medical contributor Dr. Emily Senay told co-anchor Harry Smith. "You could say 340,000 fewer deaths during that time period (between 1980 and 2000) because of the progress made."
Advances over those 20 years fall into two categories. The researchers say roughly half the progress that was made came in the form of improvements in medical and surgical treatments. Coronary bypass surgery and angioplasty to reopen blocked blood vessels became routine procedures, Dr. Senay said. Physicians and their patients made good use of clot busting medications, along with statins to regulate cholesterol, and ace inhibitors, which can reduce stress on the heart by improving blood pressure.
The researchers say that Americans made significant strides as individuals in controlling their risk factors for heart disease. They lowered their cholesterol and their blood pressure. The medications accounted for some of that, but so did lifestyle changes, Dr. Senay said. Many Americans stopped smoking, or never started. Many made a point of getting more exercise than in the past. And the analysis shows that doing those things averted a lot of heart-related deaths.
At the same time, there has been an explosion of obesity in this country, which in turn has spawned large numbers of cases of type-2 diabetes, which can be very damaging to a person's heart.
"They say about 50,000 more lives would have been saved, had not these trends," Dr. Senay said.
The takeaway, Dr. Senay said, is that people have a lot of control over their lives. Their habits have a huge impact on their health. She said people should visit their doctors regularly to gauge whether their risk of heart disease is high enough to warrant targeted treatment. They should also make sure their lifestyles are as heart-healthy as possible.
"A study like this clearly shows that people can make improvements that will have a dramatic effect on how long they live and how well they live," she said.