Heart attacks decrease even as population ages in Aspen
ASPEN – The number of heart-attack victims treated at Aspen Valley Hospital has plummeted over the past decade despite a soaring senior population in Pitkin County, according to statistics tracked by the hospital.
Dr. Gordon Gerson, the hospital’s cardiologist, said statistics show that heart attacks plummeted in the five years from 2006 to 2010 compared with 2001 to 2005.
There were 163 heart attacks during the first half of the decade, compared with 109 during the second half. That’s a reduction of 33 percent.
One possible factor was the addition of a cardiologist at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs. People who suffer heart attacks in the middle of the Roaring Fork Valley might be taken downvalley for care in some circumstances.
So Gerson looked at just the heart-attack cases he treated in patients living in Woody Creek and farther upvalley. In that population, there was a reduction from 68 cases during the first half of the decade to 42 over the second half, he said. That is a decrease of 38 percent.
From 2001 to 2011, the number of heart attacks fell 5 percent per year on average among patients from Woody Creek to Aspen. There was a high of 17 heart attacks in 2001 and a low of four in 2008 and 2011.
The reductions in heart attacks came despite the graying of the population. U.S. census data show that Aspen had 438 people 65 and older in 2000. That climbed to 764 people by 2010.
In Pitkin County, the number of seniors soared from 1,013 at the beginning of the decade to 1,964 by the end.
Gerson also discounts that the local population is getting any healthier. The Aspen area has an incredibly fit, outdoor-oriented crowd, he said, but it did a decade ago, as well.
While there is no definitive explanation for the reduction in heart attacks, Gerson has theories.
“In my mind, the two factors are statin drugs and bans on smoking,” he said.
The smoking ban in public places has reduced exposure to secondhand smoke, he said.
“Secondhand smoke is a contributor to poor health,” he said.
The use of cholesterol-reducing statin drugs has become more widespread for preventing heart attacks in high-risk people. Gerson uses the drugs to get all his patients’ LDL levels below 100 and high-risk patients’ LDL levels below 70.
Preventive measures have paid off, he said. When he treats people who have suffered heart attacks, they either are not on cholesterol-reducing drugs or aren’t properly taking care of themselves.
Gerson acknowledged he was frustrated by the skepticism he encountered in Aspen patients over use of pharmaceutical drugs to prevent heart attacks when he arrived at the hospital 111⁄2 years ago. The acceptance is growing.
“I think it’s gradually increased,” he said. “There are certainly people who are opposed to pharmaceutical.”
And now the questions might increase because of a recent warning by the Federal Drug Administration that statin drugs could contribute to increased incidences of diabetes and some cognitive dysfunction. Gerson believes more study is necessary and that cardiologists need to monitor possible symptoms.
“It’s certainly something that leads to a little more conversation in the doctor’s office,” he said.
But he remains steadfast that cholesterol-reducing drugs provide a major benefit for the vast majority of his patients at risk of heart attacks.
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