Despite the Pandemic, Heart Disease and Cancer Lead Deaths in the U.S.

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
April 15, 2021
These Two Conditions Were More Deadly Than COVID in 2020

You can’t turn on a television or scroll through a social media feed without reading about COVID-19. And while COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, is dangerous and contagious — it’s not the leading cause of death in the United States. The reigning champ of deadly conditions remains heart disease, despite the pandemic.

In a recent report of preliminary data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said COVID-19 caused 345,323 deaths in 2020; heart disease caused 690,882 deaths; and cancer caused 588,932 deaths. COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death, ahead of stroke and unintentional injury.

While this new data puts the pandemic in context, there is growing concern among public health officials that patients, having put off primary care visits, preventive screenings and other services around chronic condition management due to the pandemic, may be facing a new health crisis.

“These stats don’t suggest that you should lower your guard against COVID-19,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director,” MDVIP. “Instead, they indicate that you should be managing chronic conditions and maintaining a healthy lifestyle while wearing a mask and social distancing. The best way to do this is by working with your doctor.”

Primary care visits and preventive care dropped during the pandemic, despite a rise in telehealth visits, according to a study published in JAMA Open. Study researchers concluded that the pandemic has changed how primary care services are delivered and that the content of telemedicine visits differs from that of office visits. For example, cholesterol and blood pressure screenings dropped during the pandemic, as more and more patients are relied on telehealth visits. A1C tests, which are used to diagnose new cases of diabetes and help manage existing cases, also declined precipitously.

You’re probably well aware of the role high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and diabetes can play in cardiovascular disease. Just as a reminder – scientists accept that high cholesterol narrows blood vessel and high blood pressure damages them, making both a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Some scientists believe high blood is the leading risk factor, according to a study published in Hypertension. And heart disease is the number one complication of type 2 diabetes. That’s why it’s important to stay on top of cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose levels.

If your doctor is only offering telehealth visits right now, ask your doctor for a prescription for a lipid panel, A1C and whatever labs he thinks you need. Then schedule an appointment with Quest or Labcorp, two of the biggest providers of lab tests in the country. Many labs set up COVID protocols during the pandemic and now make appointments so waiting rooms aren’t crowded. And many pharmacies and fire stations can take your blood pressure for free. Remember to share results with your doctor.

“Scientists believe the lack of hands-on primary care, stress and poor lifestyle behaviors the pandemic has ushered into our society, will negatively affect cardiovascular health and raise heart disease deaths for years,” says Kaminetsky. 

And that’s just heart disease. Some primary care physicians can also perform cancer screenings such as clinical breast exams, prostate exams and skin cancer screenings and work with specialists to get more complex screenings performed. Obviously, it’s not possible to perform these services via a telehealth appointment and as a result, many people skipped cancer screenings, potentially delaying a cancer diagnosis. 

In fact, the Cancer Network reported a:

  • 89.2% decrease in breast cancer screenings through May 2020
  • 84.5% decrease in colorectal cancer screenings through May 2020
  • 65.2% decrease in new cancer diagnoses in April 2020
  • 67.1% decrease in new melanoma diagnoses in April 2020, compared to April 2019
  • 46.8% decrease in new lung cancer diagnoses in April 2020, compared to April 2019

These screening numbers rebounded in the fall and winter, but there is concern that people who missed recommended, routine screenings during lockdowns may still not have gotten them.

“Cancer specialists are quite concerned that the drop in cancer screenings will mean a higher percentage of people being diagnosed with cancer at a later stage, complicating their case and raising their mortality risk,” says Kaminetsky. “Some researchers are working on home cancer screening kits.”

Until home kits are available, it’s important to stay on top of chronic disease prevention. Whether the office you normally go to is open (or has reopened) for regular business or just performing telemedicine visits, give them a call if you’re not feeling well or if you haven’t had a physical or wellness visit in a while. If a doctor is unable to perform a service during a telemedicine visit, they can refer you to a lab or diagnostic center. If you missed a scheduled screening last year, give your doctor a call and see when you can get it. 

Many MDVIP-affiliated physicians are performing appointments over the phone or through video chat, while seeing patients in the office for visits that require an in-person examination. Need an MDVIP-affiliated physician? Here’s how to find a physician near you and begin your partnership in health » 
 


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About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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