Alarming Trends in Cardiovascular Health Among Middle-Aged Adults

Contact: Chloe Meck, Written by Jacqueline Mitchell

NOVEMBER 22, 2023

Researchers Uncover Decline in Cardiovascular Health Among Middle-Aged Adults and Persistent Income-Based Inequities

BOSTON – Public health experts credit steady declines in cardiovascular health in the second half of the 20th century to medical advances and improvements in important risk factors. However, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention point to a stagnation in these trends, and even an increase in deaths from heart disease specifically among middle-aged adults. New research led by investigators at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) helps explain the recent reversal in cardiovascular mortality among this population and underscores the need to address the social determinants of health that contribute to it. The findings, presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, demonstrate a significant increase in cardiovascular risk factors among middle-aged adults, as well as enduring inequities between higher-income and low-income individuals.

“The onset of cardiovascular risk factors earlier in life increases the lifetime risk of developing cardiovascular disease and experiencing life-threatening cardiovascular events,” said corresponding author Rishi K. Wadhera, MD, MPP, MPhil, Section Head of Health Policy and Equity at the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Center for Outcomes Research at BIDMC and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Our study highlights a smoldering cardiovascular health crisis among the younger segment of the U.S. population that warrants urgent public health and policy responses.”

Wadhera and colleagues evaluated trends in the prevalence, treatment and control of cardiovascular risk factors such as hypertension, obesity and smoking of more than 20,000 adults ages 40-64 years who participated in a nationally representative health survey 1999 and 2020. The team also assessed how social determinants of health including income levels, insurance coverage and access to routine care were associated with cardiovascular health.

Among middle-aged adults, low-income adults consistently experienced higher rates of hypertension, diabetes and cigarette use than their higher-income counterparts over the past two decades. The burden of several cardiovascular risk factors either worsened or remained unchanged for middle-aged adults, with differing trends by income level. The low-income group experienced a significant increase in hypertension, while the higher income group experienced a significant rise in diabetes and obesity.

“Concerningly, we observed that poor cardiovascular health remains concentrated in low-income middle-aged adults,” said lead author Michael Liu, MPhil, of HMS. “These disparities by income level persisted even after we accounted for insurance coverage, health care access and food insecurity. These results emphasize the importance of addressing these and other social determinants of health that may contribute to the relationship between income and cardiovascular health, such as stable housing, green space for regular physical activity, medication affordability, environmental burdens and adequate social support.”

Co-authors included: Rahul Aggarwal, MD, Zhao-Nian Zheng, MS, Robert W. Yeh, MD, MSc, and Dhruv S. Kazi, MD, MS, of BIDMC; and Karen E. Joynt Maddox MD, MPH, of Washington University School of Medicine, Saint Louis.

This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (R01HL164561).

About Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a leading academic medical center, where extraordinary care is supported by high-quality education and research. BIDMC is a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, and consistently ranks as a national leader among independent hospitals in National Institutes of Health funding. BIDMC is the official hospital of the Boston Red Sox.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a part of Beth Israel Lahey Health, a health care system that brings together academic medical centers and teaching hospitals, community and specialty hospitals, more than 4,700 physicians and 39,000 employees in a shared mission to expand access to great care and advance the science and practice of medicine through groundbreaking research and education.