It should come as no surprise that nearly every one of us knows someone who died of heart disease; it remains the No. 1 killer in the United States, according to a year-end update on heart disease and stroke statistics from the American Heart Association.
In fact, cardiovascular disease accounted for more than one-third of all deaths in the United States in 2004, according to the update.
"We are seeing a decline in mortality in heart disease. But it is still the No. 1 killer," said Dr. Wayne Rosamond, professor of epidemiology at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and chair of the statistics committee of the American Heart Association.
Rosamond said the update combines findings from a number of reliable sources to give people information on heart disease and stroke, treatments for these conditions, overall quality of care and prevention.
In addition to overall death rates, the update also found that when it comes to heart disease, regional differences exist. For example, Minnesota had the lowest overall total of heart deaths, while Mississippi had the highest.
If one looks at deaths specifically related to the clogging of heart vessels -- otherwise known as coronary artery disease -- Hawaii had the lowest death rate, whereas Oklahoma had the highest.
The update also found that there has been a large increase in heart procedures over the past few years.
Compared to other parts of the country, the South had twice as many bypass surgeries, open-heart surgeries, pacemaker implants and angioplasties -- procedures designed to open up clogged heart vessels.
For patients with heart disease, it may be reassuring to know that the patient care delivered at the nation's hospitals is of high quality, according to the update.
Rosamond said there is evidence that efforts are being made by the American Heart Association and other agencies to help health care professionals keep track of the quality of care they provide.
"These quality improvement programs suggest that care is actually pretty good," he said.
The American Heart Association compiled this data through a program called Get With the Guidelines (GWTG), which helps hospitals adhere to certain guidelines for diagnosing and treating patients with heart disease.
"GWTG is a voluntary program for hospitals. [Therefore,] we don't have a measure of national picture, but this is as good as we have," Rosamond said.
The GWTG uses certain criteria called "key quality indicators" to evaluate quality of care. These indicators represent basic care heart patients should receive. This could include life-saving medications, appropriate diagnostic procedures, and how quickly and efficiently they are treated.
"Overall, 86 percent of [heart] patients are getting the basic things that are recognized as key quality-of-care items," Rosamond said.
The update found about 700,000 people experience new or recurrent strokes each year.
"There are still great regional differences in stroke mortality," Rosamond said. "Stroke death rates continue to be higher in the Southeast, which is sometimes known as the stroke belt."
People often neglect signs of stroke, which can lead to devastating consequences, said Virginia Howard, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.