NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Health care professionals from across the Southeast have gathered here to try to figure out how to foster healthier hearts in a region fond of barbecue, fried fish and sitting on the porch.
The region -- sometimes dubbed the ''Stroke Belt'' -- leads the nation in the rate of deaths from cardiovascular disease.
What's more disturbing is the fact that many of the deaths could be prevented by fundamental lifestyle changes, say the 300 doctors, nurses and health care professionals attending the Southeast Regional Cardiovascular Health Conference this week.
''We're the unhealthiest section of the nation,'' said Mary Cay Crow, team leader of the Cardiovascular Health Program at the Arkansas Department of Health.
More than 2,600 people in the nation die each day from heart disease or stroke, making cardiovascular disease the nation's No. 1 killer.
Mississippi has the nation's highest mortality from cardiovascular disease; Tennessee ranks second.
Many studies have shown Southerners tend to enjoy habits that jeopardize the health of their hearts -- eating fattier fare, dining more on fast food and exercising less than their neighbors to the north.
Most of the discussion at the conference in Nashville is focused on how to help people change their daily habits -- from eating healthier to using stairs instead of an elevator.
Health care professionals at the conference also suggested they lobby state legislatures for smoke-free workplaces and restaurants, push school boards to demand healthier cafeteria food, and encourage local planners to build better sidewalks and recreational facilities.
During one lecture, conference attendees saw a slide of an 18-year-boy's artery that already was showing signs of disease.
''With the knowledge we have today, we should be able to prevent heart disease,'' said Judy Womack, director of health promotion for the Tennessee Department of Health.
The conference -- sponsored in part by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Heart Association -- runs through Wednesday.
On the Net:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov
American Heart Association: http://www.americanheart.org
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