Local heart disease rate soars in Malheur County; experts list risk factors

Malheur County Courthouse

VALE – Malheur County has one of the highest death rates due to heart disease in the state, and white males are the most affected, according to state and federal data.

Area health professionals have identified some of the risk factors that contribute to heart disease and what individuals can do to reduce them. 

Recently released heart disease data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show white men in Malheur County have the highest death rate in the state due to heart disease. 

The data, which is based on three year averages between 2015-2017, shows that out of the total population in Malheur County, there was a death rate due to heart disease of 371 per 100,000, while the number for white men, is 477. The state average is 263 per 100,000.

For white women, the number drops to 303 deaths per 100,000.

For Hispanic men and Hispanic women, the numbers are 208 and 233, respectively.

Experts said that factors such as poor nutrition, lack of exercise, smoking, and alcohol and drug abuse play into an individual’s risk for heart disease.

Some other risk factors include race, ethnicity, gender and genetics.

Experts also said that poverty in Malheur County could be a social and environmental stressor that exacerbates some of these risk factors. 

Data from the Oregon Health Authority reported slightly different numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, placing Malheur County with the fourth highest rate of death due to heart disease for white male adults of all ages between 2015-2017, with a death rate of 216 per 100,000.

However, when it comes to heart disease deaths in general, Malheur County comes in number two, with 203 deaths per 100,000.

In an email to the Enterprise, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Health Authority said that there are many risk factors that affect heart disease deaths.

Some of those factors such as age, race, ethnicity or gender, the spokeswoman said, can’t be changed.

However, she said, risk factors that can be controlled include smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heavy drinking, obesity, physical inactivity and poor nutrition.

Poverty is another risk factor for heart disease, and given that a third of Malheur County is designated in poverty, it is an important factor to consider. 

“Poverty is a stressor most directly in terms of the mental strain of constant worry about making ends meet, getting all the bills paid for the month, and not having a cushion in case something unexpected happens,” said Angie Gerrard, public health preparedness coordinator for the Malheur County Health Department.  

Gerrard said sustained stress due to poverty is detrimental to health, given that stress hormones can affect weight and sleep. 


People who are in poverty may work more than one job, lack the time or resources to buy and prepare healthy and nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables, and may not exercise daily.

However, health officials also see the risks across all socioeconomic groups.

Michael Rich, a cardiologist with the Saint Alphonsus Medical Group, agrees poverty is a factor, but he also has patients from many social backgrounds and sees no trend indicating that people of certain socio-economic backgrounds are more susceptible to heart disease than others. 

However, he notes that men are more likely to visit the doctor if their spouse or partner prompts them to do so. 

Rich said that getting regular exercise, regularly checking with a doctor, and eating healthy are key ways to help prevent heart disease. 

Rich said that a good diet means “to eat the foods your mom would tell you to eat when you were growing up.” 

When it comes to exercise, Rich has some straight forward advice. 

“Exercise is the cheapest heart pill,” he said.  

Gerrard, however, said that data shows that people who work certain types of jobs, or live in certain environments could be more susceptible to heart disease. 

“People may be doing variable shift work, which interrupts sleep-rest cycles to the detriment of our health,” Gerrard said. 

The environment also plays a role, Gerrard said. 

“Looking at the example of physical activity, in some areas of the community there are good sidewalks, good street lighting, and easy access to parks. In other areas, these conditions do not exist, making them less favorable to outdoor physical activity (and gym memberships are expensive),” Gerrard said. 

Drug and alcohol abuse can affect people from any socio-economic level, but the costs of treatment are farther out of reach for lower income individuals, Gerrard added.  

Additionally, Gerrard said, Malheur County has a shortage of healthcare providers, meaning the county has relatively few providers for its population, many concentrated in only a few places. 

The Oregon Health Authority also provided stats on death rates due to heart disease, and its data showed that Malheur County recorded 509 deaths due to heart disease between 2011 and 2017, the second highest in Oregon after Curry County, which clocked 581 deaths.  

The state data is compiled based on raw data submitted to the state vital records program. 

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Malheur County Health Department data considers deaths between 2015-2017, the state data considers a much larger period of time. 

Additionally, the state data is not broken down by sex or ethnicity. 

Both the state data and the federal data show Malheur County as having an alarming death rate due to heart disease. 

The Oregon Health Authority provided other stats on Malheur County. 

The county has the eighth highest smoking rate among adults in the state, third highest for high blood pressure, and ranks among the top seven for obesity. 

According to Rich, all three of those factors play a role in heart disease. 

Rich pointed to five major factors that contribute to heart disease – blood pressure, cholesterol, smoking, obesity, and access to care. 

Rich said that both diet and genetics play a role in whether someone develops heart disease, and that it is important to work with a physician to control the risks. 

According to the Malheur County Health Department, adults in the county are less likely than those in the state on average to self-report good to excellent levels of health.  

Malheur County also has the third lowest rank for adult self-reporting good health, the Oregon Health Authority stats showed.  

The county health officials said that this doesn’t necessarily mean that there are fewer people in the county in good to excellent health than in the rest of the state.  

“I do think there is information to be gained from people’s subjective reports of health status,” Gerrard said. 

“It lets us know how people feel in general about their health and the extent to which they feel they are achieving behaviors that protect health, such as good nutrition, physical activity, etc.”  

Rich said that in his experience on the front lines as a cardiologist, patients are reporting their health status as accurately as they can.  

“They are much more forthright than holding things back,” Rich said of his patients. “I’m impressed with how much people will tell me with their history and the challenges they have come into in their life.” 

“People are usually open about their past,” Rich added. 

Rich said that he has had patients open up about certain details such as illicit drug use, for example. 

However, Rich said that he often sees patients who don’t report to have any of the primary risk factors for heart disease, but then upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that certain risk factors are present.

News tip? Contact reporter Joe Siess: [email protected].

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