Heart disease and stroke are the first and fourth leading causes of death in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

Each year, more than 2 million Americans suffer a heart attack or stroke. More than 800,000 of them die. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that heart disease and stroke cost the U.S. economy $1 billion every day in medical costs and lost productivity.

Heart Disease and Stroke Are Often Preventable

The good news is that many heart attacks and strokes can be prevented. The right lifestyle changes can significantly reduce the risk.

That’s why DHHS, the CDC and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are leading the Million Hearts® national initiative. Federal, state and local agencies and private-sector partners also provide support for the campaign.

Million Hearts encourages Americans to make lifestyle choices that could decrease their chances of suffering a heart attack or stroke:

  • Use aspirin when appropriate
  • Control blood pressure
  • Manage high cholesterol
  • Stop smoking
  • Lower sodium consumption
  • Lower trans fat consumption

The Role of High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is a leading cause of heart disease and stroke and has been linked to dementia, according to the CDC.

Nearly 1 in 3 American adults has high blood pressure. And you know what? Nearly half of adults with high blood pressure do not have their condition under control.

You should have your physician check you and your loved ones regularly for this often undiagnosed and untreated disease.

What Exactly Happens During a Heart Attack or Stroke?

A heart attack happens when blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked by a blood clot. Clots that cut off blood flow completely can cause part of the heart muscle to die. If you’ve had a heart attack, it is critical that you make some changes in the lifestyle that led to the condition.

A stroke happens when a blood vessel in the brain — not the heart — is blocked by a clot. In this case, the lack of blood and oxygen may kill brain cells. If this happens, depending on how long oxygen and blood were blocked, a person may no longer be able to walk or talk.

Million Hearts’ programs for heart health don’t just try to prevent heart attacks and strokes. They really stress overall heart health. Besides, heart attacks and strokes aren’t the only causes for worry. Other issues may include:

  • Heart failure: The heart isn’t pumping blood as well as it should. Heart failure can get worse if not treated.
  • Arrhythmia: Sometimes the heart can beat too slow or too fast or too irregularly. If this happens, the heart may not be able to give the body all the blood it needs.
  • Heart valve problems: The valves in the heart need to open and close to allow blood to flow as it should. When they don’t, blood can “leak” through or flow backward. This condition, too, can cause problems with giving the body what it needs.

What Are the Signs of a Heart Attack?

The most common type of heart disease is coronary artery disease (CAD), which can lead to heart attacks.

Some heart attacks may happen suddenly, with intense pain. In these cases, no one questions what’s happening.

But most heart attacks start slowly with only mild pain or discomfort. Sometimes people aren’t sure what’s wrong, and they may wait too long before getting help.

Well-known heart attack symptoms for both men and women include: 

  • Severe chest pains
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain or discomfort in arms or shoulders

But women may experience slightly different symptoms, such as:

  • Pain or discomfort in the stomach, jaw, neck or back
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

What Can You Do?

To protect yourself, stay smart about your heart:

  • Know the signs of a heart attack.
  • Keep your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol in a healthy range.
  • Talk to your doctor about your numbers and ask if medication is needed.
  • Exercise most days of the week.
  • Do not smoke or use tobacco.
  • Limit alcohol use.
  • If you think you are having a heart attack, call 911 right away.

And if you haven’t had regular heart screenings with your doctor, start today. As a Blue Cross and Blue Shield member, your heart screenings are covered at 100 percent as part of your benefits.*

Need help getting started making heart-healthy lifestyle changes? The Million Hearts website offers simple-to-use tools to support heart health, including:

To learn more about keeping your heart healthy, visit the LifeTimes Heart Health section.