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Why heart disease and other chronic illnesses don't have to result in death

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Dr. Winter says signs and symptoms of chronic illnesses aren't always clear to people, so regular checkups can make a big difference.

The CDC continues to rank heart disease as the leading cause of death in Texas. But that and other chronic diseases don’t have to be killers. So said Dr. David Winter with Baylor, Scott and White. The internal medicine specialist explained why to KERA’s Sam Baker.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

About chronic disease in Texas

Heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, lung disease, and mental health issues. All those have increased steadily in this country, particularly in Texas, for several decades. The concern now is it affects about 50% of adults. I've also been told it can affect 85% of all health care costs.

Why in Texas?

Our numbers tend to be high-end of all states, unfortunately, and a lot of that has to do with some of our health habits. We don't exercise enough and don't control our diets adequately. Obesity is rampant in Texas. We smoke too much. There's substance abuse. There are a lot of things we could do to improve our health.

A good first step

I think we all should look at ourselves and what we're doing on a daily basis to improve our health, to take care of things:

  • People that exercise on a regular basis are healthier. They're less likely to get chronic illnesses if they do get ill or if they get sick or injured, they recover faster.
  • Nutrition plays a role. Obesity is somewhat genetically related, but we could all do better if we ate less fatty foods, less high sugar content foods, and less high cholesterol foods. The amount of food we eat can make a big difference, also.
  • Tobacco use is going down across the country, but less so in Texas. The use of smoking tobacco, chewing tobacco, the dips that people do - those aren't good for you.
  • And substance abuse is a problem in this country.

When we improve on all those things, we see fewer chronic illnesses and chronic illnesses that are better managed when those things are controlled.
Can any be cured?

They can certainly make a difference if we try to control those. Some people are destined to get diabetes and high blood pressure, but if you're destined to get that and you control your health habits, they can be minimized. The onset can be delayed or prolonged. Folks who stay healthy tend to do well.

I remember in medical school that if you were in your 60s and 70s, you were considered old and infirmed. That's not true anymore. I've got patients in their 80s who are very healthy, travel the world, have a great time, and some, even in their early 90s, do very, very well.

But the folks who don't take care of themselves, they don't reach those ages, at least if they do, they're not in very good health at that time.

Are we just talking about bad habits? Are they unaware of the signs or symptoms of chronic diseases?

Oftentimes, the signs and symptoms aren't clear to people. So regular checkups, and a relationship with a good physician to keep track of you, makes a big difference. And detecting those chronic illnesses early and then taking steps to minimize those.

Does managing chronic diseases require medication? 

Not necessarily. Early diabetes can often be controlled by a big change in your diet and by losing weight. Being very careful with salt intake can make a big difference with hypertension. Also, losing weight and regular exercise could control blood pressure without the need for medications. And then heart disease with high cholesterol, we can modify our cholesterol levels with diet alone.

Who’s most at risk for chronic diseases? 

Everyone is certainly prone to get these, but family history can give you a clue if there is diabetes in your family. Hypertension, heart attacks, and strokes. You definitely should make a visit to the physician. See if you are susceptible at this point. See if the markers in your blood on your examination indicate that you're going to get that or you're on the way to getting that.

RESOURCES:

CDC: Leading causes of death in Texas (2020)

Texas Leading Causes of Death (2017)

CDC: Mortality in the U.S.

Heart Disease Burden Shifted to Southern US States

Texas Deaths By Age and Gender

Interview highlights were lightly edited for clarity.

Got a tip? Email Sam Baker at sbaker@kera.org. You can follow Sam on Twitter @srbkera.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.