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Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. And now, a new study offers a simple method for predicting the risk of having a heart attack or stroke. It comes from the New England Journal of Medicine, and NPR's Patti Neighmond tells us more.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: As it is now, doctors talk to middle aged patients about the risk of having a heart attack or stroke over the next five to 10 years. That typically means a four percent chance of having a cardiovascular event even if patients have high blood pressure or cholesterol.

When you look at the rest of someone's life, say, the next 20 or 30 years, the risk changes dramatically. Cardiologist Donald Lloyd-Jones headed the study at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

DONALD LLOYD-JONES: If at age 45, you have two or more of either elevated blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes or smoking, and you're a man, then there's basically a 50-50 proposition that you will have a heart attack or a stroke during your remaining lifespan.

NEIGHMOND: To figure that out, Lloyd-Jones tallied the results of 18 different long-term studies over the past 50 years involving men, women, African-Americans and whites, more than 250,000 adults. He looked at risk factors for heart disease, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or smoking, then he compared that to who died or suffered disability from a heart attack or stroke. Lloyd-Jones found both African-American and white men who had at least two risk factors had a 50 percent chance of suffering a major cardiovascular event, while women had a 30 percent chance. Having even one risk factor dramatically increased the risk of heart disease.

LLOYD-JONES: Currently, only 5 percent of Americans make it into middle age - by which I mean ages of 45 to 55 years - without already having elevated blood pressure or elevated cholesterol or diabetes or being a smoker.

NEIGHMOND: That means 95 percent of middle-aged Americans have at least one risk factor for heart disease. Nonetheless, there is some good news here. Actually, great news, says Lloyd-Jones, nonsmokers who can make it to middle age with normal levels of blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugars bring their risk of heart disease down to nearly zero.

LLOYD-JONES: Our data suggested that for a 45-year-old man, the likelihood he would have a heart attack or stroke by age 80 was only 1.4 percent.

NEIGHMOND: The goal, says Lloyd-Jones, help more Americans make it to middle age without any risk factors for heart disease. That means tracking their blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar early in adulthood. Cardiologist Gordon Tomaselli is president of the American Heart Association. He says young adults should measure their blood pressure even if they don't have a doctor.

DR. GORDON TOMASELLI: There are automated blood pressure cuffs publicly available in many venues, like in grocery stores and in pharmacies, where you can actually go to get your blood pressure measured.

NEIGHMOND: If it's high, says Tomaselli, see a health care provider. As for cholesterol...

TOMASELLI: If you have a family history of high cholesterol, that really should prompt you to get checked earlier on in life.

NEIGHMOND: In your 30s or even 20s, he says. That also goes for diabetes. If there's a family history, blood sugars should be checked early on. Diet, exercise and medications can be highly effective when people have these health problems. And while they can't wipe out heart disease risk entirely, they can control and manage symptoms pretty well. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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