Mar 4, 2011 2:54 PM
When we think of heart disease, we tend to imagine a sudden event: a heart attack. But usually, that's only a small part of the story.
In fact, most people recover after their first heart attack. That's the good news. The bad news is that a first heart attack is often the start of something new: life with heart disease. The risks aren't only medical. Heart disease could wipe out your family's finances and limit your ability to work.
Here's a rundown of the costs of heart disease -- along with some advice about how you can protect yourself.
In the U.S., all cardiovascular disease costs $273 billion each year, including heart conditions, stroke, peripheral artery disease, and high blood pressure. In fact, of all the money spent in the U.S. on health care, 17% goes toward treating cardiovascular disease, says Paul A. Heidenreich, MD, a cardiologist at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in California and associate professor of medicine at Stanford University. Heart conditions such as heart failure, heart attack, bypasses, etc., account for nearly $96 billion of that total.
What are the costs per person? One study estimated that over the course of a person's lifetime, the cost of severe coronary artery disease -- the most common form of heart disease -- is more than $1 million. That includes both direct and indirect costs.
Those who don't have good health insurance, or no insurance, can be financially ruined by heart disease overnight. That can also be true for people who do have decent health insurance. The lost wages alone can be crippling.
Even if you don't develop heart disease, it's still costing you. "You're paying for cardiovascular disease whether you have it or not," Heidenreich says. "You're paying for it in your taxes and your health insurance premiums." He estimates that the average person in the U.S. is paying $878 per year for the societal costs of heart disease.
Projections show that the direct costs of cardiovascular disease will triple in the next 20 years, rising to $818 billion.
The medical costs of heart disease are rising for several reasons. One is obvious: More people are developing it. In part, it's the result of an aging population and the increasing incidence of high blood pressure and obesity.
Another cause is less obvious: Treatment is better and saving more lives.
"In the old days, people used to die after a heart attack," says Matt Tassey, past chairman of the nonprofit Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education (LIFE). "Nowadays, people are back to work in three to five months." More people who survive means more people who need ongoing treatment.
What can you do to protect yourself and your family from the financial costs of heart disease?
If you already have heart disease and don't have insurance, it will be difficult to get it on your own. Insurers may limit or refuse coverage for people with preexisting conditions. If you can get a group plan through an employer, you can probably still get coverage. There will likely be a waiting period before it takes effect.
The health care reform law will prevent insurers from declining coverage because of heart disease or other preexisting conditions. This will be enforced beginning in 2014.
One way that can help reduce your risk of heart disease -- and the suffering and medical costs -- is to improve your lifestyle. Even if you've already developed heart disease, it's not too late. Lifestyle changes can still have a big impact, Heidenreich says.
Try these 5 tips:
Cutting out salt isn't easy. Start by gradually reducing the amount you add to food, Heidenreich says. Pay attention to sodium on nutritional labels too. Packaged or processed foods account for 75% to 80% of the salt we take in.
Of course, many of us have seen -- and ignored -- the suggestions for heart disease lifestyle changes before. Yet they really can make a difference. Heidenreich estimates that if everyone made some sensible lifestyle changes, the number of heart attacks in the U.S. would drop by 63% in the next 30 years.
To protect your health -- and protect your finances -- making changes to how you live can be a good idea. That $50 a month for a gym membership might seem a little pricey for your budget. Compared to the $1 million that a lifetime of treatment for coronary artery disease could cost, it's a good deal.