Heart Disease: Treat or Prevent?

One of the greatest killers in the Western world is heart disease. The death rate from the disease has been increasing at an alarming speed for the past thirty years. Today in Britain, for example, about four hundred people a day die of heart disease. Western health-care systems are spending huge sums of money on the surgical treatment of the disease.

This emphasis on treatment is clearly associated with the technological advances that have taken place in the past ten to fifteen years. In this time, modern technology has enabled doctors to develop new surgical techniques and procedures. Many operations that were considered impossible a few years ago are now performed every day in U.S.hospitals. The result has been a rapid increase in heart surgery.

Although there in no doubt that a large number of people benefit from heart surgery, critics of our health-care systems point out that the emphasis on the surgical treatment of the disease has three clear disadvantages. First, it attracts interest and financial resources away from the question of prevention. Second, it causes the costs of general hospital care to rise. After hospitals buy the expensive equipment that is necessary for modern heart surgery, they must try to recover the money they have spent. To do this, they raise costs for all their patients, not just those patients whose treatment requires the equipment. The third disadvantage is that doctors are encouraged to perform surgery - even on patients for whom an operation is not at all necessary - because the equipment and surgical expertise is available. A federal government office recently said that major heart surgery was often performed even though its chances of success were low. In one type of heart surgery, for example, only 15 percent of patients benefited form the surgery.

In the recent past, medical researchers have begun to emphasize the fact that heart disease is associated with stress, smoking and a lack of exercise, and we can often reduce the risk of heart disease by paying more attention to these factors.

More and more people are realizing that there is a connection between heart disease and the way they live. As a result of this new awareness, attitudes toward health are changing. In the past, people tended to think that it was sufficient for good health to have a good doctor who could be relied on to know exactly what to do when they became ill. Now they are realizing that merely receiving the best treatment for illness or injury is not enough. They are learning that they must take more responsibility for their own health. Today many people are changing their dietary habits and eating food with less fat and cholesterol. Many are paying more attention to reducing stress in their lives. The number of smokers in the United States is now far below the level of twenty years ago as many people succeed in breaking the habit and as fewer people take it up. More and more people are aware of the benefits of regular exercise like walking, running, or swimming; some have begun to walk or ride bicycles to work instead of driving. Millions have become members of health clubs and have made health clubs one of the fastest growing businesses in the United States today. And now the beneficial effects of these changing attitudes and behaviors are beginning to appear: an encouraging decrease in deaths from heart disease.