Heart disease the number 1 killer worldwide

Roughly a third of all deaths around the world are the result of heart disease and stroke, making cardiovascular disease the number one killer globally, new research finds.

Big declines in heart disease-driven fatalities in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea and many countries in Western Europe have started to level off over the past 20 years, investigators reported.

The study was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

"It is an alarming threat to global health," said study lead author Dr Gregory Roth, an assistant professor of cardiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Heart disease-related deaths on the rise

"Trends in cardiovascular disease mortality are no longer declining for high-income regions," he noted in an American College of Cardiology news release, "and low- and middle-income countries are also seeing more cardiovascular disease-related deaths."

The study included 2 300 investigators from 133 nations.

The research looked at current international rates of various types of heart disease, including stroke, heart failure, coronary heart disease, atrial fibrillation and peripheral arterial disease.

Prevalence of heart disease

Those diseases were highest in countries across sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and eastern and central Europe. Central and eastern Europe also had high heart disease-driven death rates, alongside Iraq, Afghanistan and several island nations in the South Pacific.

Non-communicable diseases accounts for an estimated 43% of deaths in South Africa, of which cardiovascular disease accounts for nearly a fifth (18%) of the total deaths.

Some of the CVD related risks factors in adults in South Africa are: 

  • 18% of the population smoke tobacco 
  • 11 litres of pure alcohol consumed per person 
  • 1 in 3 South African adults (33.7%) has hypertension, which can increase risk of heart attack, heart failure, kidney disease or stroke 
  • 31.3% of adults in South Africa are obese

The lowest heart disease incidence was found to be in wealthy Asian nations. Those included Singapore, Japan and South Korea. Some southern South American countries – such as Chile and Argentina – also had particularly low rates of heart disease.

The lowest death rates were seen in Andorra, France, Israel, Japan, Peru and Spain.

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About 18 million people around the world died from heart disease in 2015. More than 400 million men and women have cardiovascular illness, the researchers said.

Low-cost, effective treatments

Global cardiovascular fatality rates fell between 1990 and 2010. They dropped from 393 deaths to 307 deaths per every 100 000 people, according to the study.

The lion's share of that drop occurred in developed countries. However, since 2010 fatality rates have slowed. Between 2010 and 2015, the rate dropped to 286 deaths per 100 000 people.

"High levels of cardiovascular disease are seen throughout the world, both in high-income countries and those with more limited access to effective and inexpensive treatments," said Roth.

"Risk factors for [heart disease], like high blood pressure, poor diet, high cholesterol, tobacco smoking, excessive alcohol use and obesity, are common throughout most of the world," he said.

"Now we need to find innovative ways to deliver our low-cost, effective treatments to the hundreds of millions of people who can't access them," Roth concluded.

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