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Heart Monitor
The costs of treating heart disease in America has hit $444 billion a year.
Justin Lambert—Getty Images

You may have heard that heart disease is America’s biggest killer, but it’s also one of America’s costliest health problems. More than a third of adults in the U.S. have heart disease, and treatment costs totaled $444 billion in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet heart disease is largely preventable, and most of us can do our part to avoid it — and the associated high medical bills.

“The patient who has a heart attack and comes to the emergency room within 90 minutes and is seen immediately…can be discharged the next day and return to work in a week or two,” says cardiologist Lawrence Santora, medical director of the Orange County Heart Institute and Research Center. “The cost is about $1,000 or so for the cardiologist and $15,000 to $20,000 for the hospital.”

In fact, the average cost of treating a patient admitted to a hospital with a heart attack is $18,200 according to Medicare data. Unfortunately, you don’t get to opt for the average charge, and if an ambulance brings you to one of the higher-cost emergency rooms for cardiology, the total tab for a single heart attack could be $100,000 or more.

That’s the cost without insurance. But even with health coverage, you’ll still have to pay out-of-pocket costs, which normally include your deductible and co-insurance. The cap on deductibles this year is $6,350 for an individual and $12,700 for a family, and rises to $6,500 and $13,000 in 2015. However, that includes only what you spend on covered items. Anything that your insurance doesn’t cover is billed at full price and does not count toward your deductible.

It’s hard to know what a heart attack will cost you because every hospital sets charges for individual services. The total cost of a heart attack varies widely across the country, and even within some metro areas. To get an idea of average costs in your area, check out this comparison tool by NerdWallet.

A single heart attack with no complications isn’t common, though. “The patient who delays coming to the hospital usually has more extensive heart muscle damage,” says Santora. “This is when costs skyrocket. A severely damaged heart muscle can lead to congestive heart failure and a lifetime of future hospital admissions.”

The Best Prevention

Fortunately, it’s far cheaper to prevent and detect heart disease early. While many people are genetically predisposed to heart problems, there are two ways you can protect yourself: a healthy lifestyle and early detection. When compared to the high cost of heart disease, and especially ailments such as heart attack and stroke, these are well worth the investment.

So what does that healthy lifestyle entail? It’s not as strict or as difficult as you might think, according to the American Heart Association. Just an average of 30 minutes of exercise each day, five days per week, and a few dietary changes will do.

“Do any exercise you enjoy,” Santora says. “A reasonable target is 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week and light weight training for 20 minutes, three times per week. Buying a pedometer and walking 10,000 steps per day is another simple method to lower heart risk.”

As for diet, that’s also pretty simple, according to Santora. Stick to a Mediterranean diet and avoid processed meats whenever possible—although steak and other lean, unprocessed red meats are fine a few times a week—to keep your heart healthiest, he says.

“Don’t focus on cholesterol,” Santora says. “The cholesterol you ingest doesn’t raise the levels in your blood—it’s animal saturated fats that do that.” In other words, eggs and plant-based cholesterol are fine.

The Tests You Need

Lifestyle changes aren’t the only preventive measures you can take. Under the Affordable Care Act, many preventive services are free, including those that help improve heart health. Obesity and diet counseling, aspirin, blood pressure screenings, and cholesterol screenings are all provided free of charge as long as you have an ACA-compliant health plans.

Early detection means visiting your doctor regularly, sometimes getting diagnostic scans like echocardiograms or CT scans, and seeking immediate medical treatment whenever you suspect heart problems. Under the ACA a visit to your primary care doctor is also free once per year. Preventive and diagnostic measures are also likely to be covered in part by your health plan, because prevention saves insurance companies money down the road as well, according to the American Heart Association.

That monthly $60 gym membership fee is looking more and more like a bargain.

Read more from NerdWallet Health, a website that empowers consumers to find high quality, affordable health care and lower their medical bills.