Military autopsies: What new findings reveal about heart disease could come as a surprise
Newer research shows U.S. servicemen who were autopsied showed signs of heart disease that researchers say highlights an ongoing need to help prevent the disease, beginning early in life. The surprise is that even 27 year olds were found tohave severe coronary heart disease.
The finding, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), December 26, 2012, found an 8.5% prevalence of coronary artery disease in servicemen autopsied between 2001 and 2011.
The study, conducted by Bryant J. Webber, M.D., of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Md., and colleagues included all U.S. service members who died of combat or unintentional injuries in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom/New Dawn.
Severe heart disease found in young service members
The researchers classified heart disease findings as mild, moderate or severe. Severe coronary atherosclerosis was present in 2.3 percent of service members; moderate in 4.7 percent, and minimal in 1.5 percent.
Severe atherosclerosis was defined as 50% or more narrowing of the arteries that supply blood flow to the heart.
As expected, high blood pressure and cholesterol in addition to obesity was associated with a higher prevalence of coronary artery disease (CAD).
Other factors linked to heart disease among service members whose average age was just 26 included lower education level and higher body mass index upon entrance into the military.
Even though the findings show heart disease prevalence is on the decline compared to what was discovered from military service member studies from the Korean and Viet Nam wars, there is still a need for further improvement.
Prevention of coronary artery disease has to start early
The authors write: "Military and civilian health care systems should continue to help patients reduce their cardiovascular risk factors, beginning in childhood and continuing throughout adult life. Despite remarkable progress in prevention and treatment, cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States and other developed nations, and even small improvements in the prevalence of smoking and other risk factors may reduce death rates further and prolong healthy lives."
Studies show children can develop risk factors for heart disease as early as age 5. One such finding showed 5 to 17 year olds have at least one risk factor for coronary artery disease. One of the largest risks cited is increased rates of childhood obesity.
In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests children receive at least one cholesterol screening blood test before age 21 in recommendations that also drew some criticism.
They also recommended if dietary and lifestyle changes fail to lower lipid levels after six months, children over age 10 should be placed on statin drugs – anti-cholesterol prescription medications.
Weight loss, smoking cessation, consuming a Mediterranean or primarily plant based diet with plenty of fresh food, avoiding excess salt, keeping stress levels manageable (perhaps by changing your perspective) and regular daily physical activity are all known and proven interventions for the whole family that can ensure a longer and healthier life.
Heart disease leads to major disability, produces a heavy financial burden on our health care system and on individuals and leads to the need for medications that can have adverse side effects and are also costly.
What you can do
It’s also important to know you really can reverse existing coronary artery disease. Dean Ornish who is a pioneer has a program that – only if you’re serious – can help turn your life around. His program is proven to reverse even severe forms of coronary heart disease without drugs or surgery.
You might even consider the Ornish diet, which was ranked #1 by U.S. News & World Report for the past two years. His program is offered at hospitals throughout the U.S. and is covered by Medicare.
The autopsy finding from young service member autopsies supports the notion that heart disease is a progressive disease that starts in childhood and highlights the need for strong public health messages that can curb the incidence of heart attack, stroke and other types of cardiovascular disease that kills 600,000 people in the United States each year. The good news is it's possible to reverse heart disease and plenty of tools to tap into if you're motivated.
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