Each year, roughly 790,000 Americans suffer a heart attack and one in seven deaths continues to be caused by heart disease—making it the nation’s leading killer.

The path to heart disease often feels unstoppable, inevitable: Your blood pressure is too high, your cholesterol keeps rising, your arteries are narrowing, and—before you know it—there are exploratory procedures and invasive surgeries scheduled.

With this Healthy Heart Report, Consumer Reports aims to provide consumers with evidence-based information for all the critical moments along the way, to help you cut through the noise of conflicting studies and swirling, often contradictory advice.

And so that you can make the best possible choices about your own well-being:

When should you take statins to lower cholesterol? What exactly is a heart-healthy diet? How low should your blood pressure go, and what’s the best way to get there? Do you really need an EKG?

And, among many other questions, how do you determine the right hospital if surgery is required?

The Beat Goes On

Heart health illustration
Illustration: Eiko Ojala

All of this can seem daunting. But we know that people have the power to change the course of this disease—even after it has begun—to improve their own odds and to make smart, thoughtful, timely decisions.

“People have a lot more control than they may think,” says Steven Nissen, M.D., chairman of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. “And it is never too late to start,” he says of making healthy, daily changes to one’s habits.

According to a recent analysis of current heart research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a healthy lifestyle can cut the risk of a heart attack or other coronary event by a third to one-half, even among people with a family history of the disease.

That’s what we’re talking about, being informed on everything from good fats to the very best hospitals.

Examining all the options paid off for Simone Liebling.

The night before her surgery to repair a malfunctioning valve, Liebling, 80, went to bed at midnight, same as always.

“My husband was very concerned,” she says, “but I told him to be positive, that I would be fine.”

One reason Liebling felt so confident was that she had done her research, considering several places before settling on Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital, right in her hometown of Greensboro, N.C.

“I wanted to get well,” she says. “I wanted to get back to my wonderful life.”

It was a good choice.

Moses H. Cone is one of roughly 70 hospitals in the country that appear in Consumer Reports’ list of best hospitals for heart surgery. And it is one of fewer than 20 medical centers that earned top scores in both aortic valve replacement and coronary artery bypass surgery.

We’ve published ratings of hospitals that perform heart surgery since 2014, working with the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, the nation’s leading organization for physicians who operate on the heart and chest.

Our intent goes beyond helping patients choose the best hospitals. We want all hospitals to publicly report surgical results and patient outcomes, and we believe that kind of transparency leads to improvement.

And we’re pleased to report that since we first published these hospital ratings, more hospitals have been added to our list.

Six months after her surgery, Liebling was back playing tennis and taking courses at a local college.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.