In its 36-county area, Northeast Texas is facing urgent challenges in health — top among those, heart disease and stroke.
The Tyler Morning Telegraph reported last month the area saw higher mortality rates in the five leading causes of death compared to the state and the country in the 2021 Health Status of Northeast Texas Report.
This means that if Northeast Texas were a state, it would rank 47 out of 50 in being the worst area with heart disease mortality rates and would rank 50 in stroke mortality.
Within Northeast Texas, mortality rates due to heart disease and stroke were higher among non-Hispanic Black people than non-Hispanic white people and are higher among men than women, though the rate is increasing among women.
Smith County Public Health Authority Dr. Paul McGaha said among the 1.6 million Northeast Texas residents, there are some areas that saw improvement, while others did not.
Although death rates are still worse than the rest of the state and the nation, they did improve since the 2016 report. Mortality rates for heart disease, stroke, most cancers, and kidney disease were lower in 2019 than in 2014 (the focus of the first edition), while mortality rates for diabetes, COPD, Alzheimer’s disease, suicide, alcohol/drug use, and unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes specifically, were higher.
“Cigarette smoking continues to be a major public health issue, maybe the major public health issue in the region, although it improved over that five-year period of time. But we are still seeing the ravages of that from increased, high rates of cardiovascular disease and increased rates of lung disease, too,” McGaha said, adding tobacco usage rates are still very high among rural counties and those negative effects of tobacco use last for decades in an individual.
Meaning, though tobacco usage rates declined, the effects continue to be contributing factors to health conditions, including heart disease.
Dr. Gabiela Orgeron, who specializes in general cardiology, has a special interest in preventive cardiology and women’s cardiovascular health. She said according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an American dies every 36 seconds from cardiovascular disease.
“I believe that prevention is the way to decrease the burden that cardiovascular disease has in our country,” Orgeron said. “I believe that education is the most powerful tool we have available. I want each patient to learn how to take care of the different risk factors that lead to heart disease. Managing my patients’ risk factors leads to a healthier life — that is my goal for my patients.”
McGaha clarified there is an increase in mortality even with older residents included in the equation. The number of elderly people living in the Northeast Texas region does not solely represent the region’s increased death rates compared to the state and nation.
“That’s not the singular reason, although we have more seniors here. One cannot account for the increased death rates solely based on age,” he said.
For heart disease specifically, though rates decreased over the last five years, it continues to be the leading cause of death in the area and in the United States.
McGaha said the most common type of heart disease is coronary heart disease, caused by plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries, which restrict blood flow to the heart muscle. When there’s not enough blood flow, a heart attack could occur.
Five major risk factors for coronary heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cigarette smoking, physical activity and obesity.
“If you look at our Northeast Texas area, we have higher rates of hypertension or blood pressure here, we have many with uncontrolled high blood pressure, which is a strong risk factor,” McGaha said.
“We don’t exercise as much as we need to and we’re more overweight here, so those are the five main risk factors and they are present to a higher degree in the East Texas area,” he added.
McGaha said individuals can modify these risk factors and work on it to improve health statistics in the area. Some recommendations, after checking in with your primary care doctor, include simply getting moving. Low-intensity, persistent walking for at least 20 to 45 minutes five to six times a week will make a difference in heart health.
The county’s public health authority serves on many boards in the area to advise on health status in the area. He spoke on ways local entities are working on addressing these health issues.
“The City of Tyler is creating more trails and bicycle lanes for individuals. The Northeast Texas Public Health District created the Center for Healthy Living, which promotes healthy activities. There’s all sorts of fitness centers springing up and they’re (trying to) encourage people to get healthy, (along with) initiatives in schools, in colleges,” McGaha said.
Orgeron recommended five things Northeast Texans can do to reduce their risk of heart disease.
1. Eat healthy
Orgeron said the Mediterranean diet, which consists of consuming rich fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, olive oil and also favors the consumption of fish and chicken over red meats, reduces the progression of atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque in arteries.
2. Know your past medical and family history
She said women “need to be aware of risk factors such as history of hypertensive disorders during pregnancy which put us at increased risk to develop cardiovascular disease in the future including hypertension, heart disease and even diabetes,” Orgeron said. She added knowing of family history is important because there is a genetic component for cardiovascular disease.
According to the World Health Organization, current research has been dominated with genetic differences involving the renin-angiotensin system, which are believed to be at fault for the development of CVD. The renin-angiotensin system monitors blood flow, blood pressure and basic cardiovascular activity.
3. Know your numbers
Orgeron recommends visiting a health care professional regularly to learn what is normal for blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, body mass index and to learn about things you can do to make sure that everything is under control.
4. Keep active
The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity (or a combination of both), preferably spread throughout the week, Orgeron said.
“This can help not only control the patient’s weight but also has a positive impact on blood pressure, blood sugar and overall cardiovascular health,” she said.
5. Quit smoking
Smoking damages the heart and blood vessels, it can cause heart attacks, hypertension, strokes, aneurysms and peripheral artery disease. Orgeron added there are a lot of products available nowadays to help patients quit.