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Big Sky Connection - Heart-related deaths were up in 2020, the first year of the pandemic. The rural nature of Montana can make it hard for people experiencing heart attacks or strokes to get to the nearest hospital in a timely fashion. Comments from Dr. Brian Rah, cardiology department chair, Billings Clinic.

Click on the image above for the audio.  Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. (dragonstock/Adobe Stock)

Eric Tegethoff

February 21, 2023 - A new study finds cardiovascular-related deaths increased during the first year of the pandemic. American Heart Association data finds there were more than 920,000 heart-related deaths in 2020, the highest number since 2003. Health officials say part of the issue was that people having heart attacks or strokes were less likely to come to the hospital because of concern over COVID.

Doctor Brian Rah, chair of the cardiology department at the Billings Clinic, said coming to a hospital during a heart event is an issue in Montana - pandemic or not - given the rural nature of the state.

"So, it's specifically more important for patients in Montana to realize they're having symptoms, and if they think they're having a heart attack, to go to their nearest emergency room as soon as possible," he said.

Rah said studies have shown that many Montanans do not even call 9-1-1 when they are having a heart attack, and added travel to the nearest hospital can sometimes double the amount of time from symptom to treatment in the state.

Rah noted that time is of the essence when treating heart issues.

"One of the biggest things about long-term survival is how much heart muscle damage you have after a heart attack," Rah said. "So we would certainly improve your risk of surviving a heart attack, but we would improve the amount of damage that your heart suffered so that you wouldn't have as many long-term problems."

The report also found Black, Native American and other communities of color are at the highest risk for heart-related deaths. Rah advised people to visit a primary-care doctor so they can treat risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes, and added a good diet and exercise also are important.