dollar signThe economic cost of cardiovascular disease and stroke in the United States has never been higher, but investing in cardiovascular health now could head off serious financial burdens in the future.

In “Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics — 2015 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association,” published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, the association reports that the total economic cost of heart disease and stroke in 2011 was $320.1 billion.

This makes cardiovascular diseases the nation’s single most costly diagnostic group. By 2030, medical costs associated with heart disease and stroke will reach $918 billion, the report found.

“It is a big, big epidemic in our society,” said Khoi Lam, M.D., an emergency room physician at Washington Hospital Healthcare System in Fremont, California. “It cannot be overemphasized.”

The estimate for 2011 includes $195.6 billion in direct medical expenditures, which includes the cost of physicians, hospital services, prescription medication and home health care, according to the AHA report.

In 2012, the average heart patient spent $4,349  on medical care for his or her condition, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, though costs can vary wildly for different services. For example, the average cost of an inpatient hospital stay for someone with a heart condition was $20,758.

In addition to the immediate medical cost, “there are other surrounding costs that you don’t think about,” said Lam.

People who die from heart disease or who take time off work lose potential future income that can financially burden their family and loved ones. The toll in lost productivity due to premature deaths from heart disease and stroke added up to $124.5 billion in 2011, the AHA report found.

Since Salvatore Quidone, 74, suffered a heart attack on the front steps of his Dobbs Ferry, New York, home last October, the bills for his medicine, cardiac rehabilitation and emergency room visit just keep coming.

“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said Quidone. “It’s going to be devastating to my wife and my family.”

And there’s almost no way to estimate the intangible costs, such as unexpected side effects, unpaid caretakers, stress and pain.

Luckily, preventive care can be cost-effective in the long term.

“It’s worth it if you have to spend a little money to prevent the enormous cost when you get this disease,” said Lam.

Here are some of the costs and benefits of living a heart-healthy lifestyle:

  • Cigarettes and tobacco: If you’re a pack-a-day smoker, quitting can save you upwards of $1,000 a year, based on price estimates from the National Institutes of Health.. While nicotine gum or patches might cost $30 to $100 a month.  Tobacco cessation counseling is now offered for free by most health plans under the Affordable Care Act. Some state Medicaid programs cover both cessation medications and counseling to enrollees at little or no cost.
  • Screenings: Most preventive screening services are now covered under the Affordable Care Act. Blood pressure tests, cholesterol tests, diabetes screenings, nutrition counseling and obesity counseling are available at no cost for all or some adults. If you’re uninsured or want to pay out-of-pocket, some health facilities offer these services for free or at reduced costs. At CVS, blood pressure and cholesterol screenings range from $59 to $79. Walgreens pricing is available by calling 855-925-4733.
  • Nutrition: Eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and limiting sodium, sugar, alcohol and fatty foods reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases. While eating lean meats, nuts and fish can add up, researchers at Harvard School of Public Health concluded that eating a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet costs only $1.50 more a day, or about $550 more per year, than the least-healthy diets. But eating more meals at home, buying in season and buying in bulk can help save money.
  • Exercise: Regular exercise — 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week — reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke. Exercise at a local park or trail for free, or join a gym, which can range from $20 to more than $100 a month.

Such costs are largely negligible when considering the potential financial and emotional repercussions of a heart attack or stroke.

“If you are aware of your risk factors, it’s definitely worth it from a financial perspective to spend the time, money and effort to do everything that you can to prevent those risk factors,” said Lam.