Despite all the progress we’ve made in understanding the factors that affect our heart health, the reality is that heart disease is still the number one killer in the U.S. And stroke, the leading cause of disability, is the fourth.

That's the message of an American Heart Association (AHA) report showing that heart disease and stroke are still contributing to an unnecessarily large number of deaths each year. The keyword here is “unnecessary,” since many of these deaths are preventable. And the group has some useful information on that, too.

Heart disease is also the number one killer among women, surpassing all forms of cancer combined.

The far-ranging report breaks down the prevalence of heart disease and stroke in the U.S. in recent years. In 2010, for example, 787,000 people died from these two causes alone.

About 720,000 people have heart attacks each year, causing almost 380,000 deaths — a staggering number. This amounts to over 2,100 people every day, or two people every minute. Heart disease is also the number one killer among women, surpassing all forms of cancer combined.

The numbers for stroke are no better. About 795,000 people have a stroke each year, with about 129,000 people dying from it.

The good news is that in the last 10 years heart disease-related deaths have fallen almost 40%. The number of strokes has been reduced, but it is still the leading cause of disability in the country, and the leading cause of preventable disability. African Americans have double the risk of stroke compared to white Americans.

Although heart- and stroke-related deaths are dropping, it may be because care is improving, not necessarily because we’re taking better care of ourselves.

Seven Healthy Habits
The AHA stresses seven healthy habits — Life’s Simple 7 — that can cut one’s risk of these diseases significantly.

The Simple 7 includes not smoking, getting enough physical exercise, eating a healthy diet, keeping a healthy body weight, and controlling cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar.

These goals make common sense, but are not always easy to maintain; and many Americans don’t practice them at all.

Less than 1% of the country eats a diet that’s in line with the basics of a healthy diet. And a third of Americans do no physical activity of any kind during their leisure time.

The effects of these bad habits are easily seen: A growing number of Americans — 155 million — are overweight or obese. About a third have high blood pressure, almost half have high cholesterol. About 20 million people have type 2 diabetes.

So what can you do to achieve the Simple 7? Don’t try to do everything at once. It’s easy to want to jump in and fix everything at one time, but this can backfire and leave you even more discouraged. Making small steps toward these changes is the best way.

For some simple tips and resources from the AHA on making healthy lifestyle changes, please visit their MyLifeCheck website.

The study is published in the AHA’s journal, Circulation.