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Even in many wealthy countries, heart disease is on the rise for some groups. Getty Images
  • Researchers have found evidence that heart disease rates are rising or stagnating even in very wealthy countries.
  • Every year more than 600,000 Americans die due to heart disease.
  • Experts aren’t sure exactly why the rates aren’t improving, but point to obesity as one of the factors.

A new trend in cardiovascular health is alarming researchers. The rate of deaths from heart disease and stroke have virtually stopped declining in wealthy countries and in some cases, they’re climbing.

Researchers from Australia’s University of Melbourne analyzed trends in cardiovascular disease mortality in 23 high-income countries beginning in 2000. The study was published this month in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

The researchers write in their observational study that cardiovascular disease mortality rates for people ages 35 to 74 have slowed their decline in just over half of the countries (12 of 23) they studied.

Additionally, the researchers found that death rates from heart disease began to rise in seven of the countries for at least one sex during this same time span.

For U.S. males and females and females in Canada, cardiovascular death rates increased in the most recent year.

Each year, more than 600,000 Americans die from heart disease. Almost three-quarters of a million Americans have a heart attack, and nearly 800,000 people experience a stroke.

In Australia, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, rates of decline slumped in recent years to just 20 to 50 percent what they were in the 2000s.

What could be contributing to this finding? In the same timeframe as this study, rates of obesity have been rising steadily.

In Australia, one-third of adults are obese. The same is true in the United States, where one-third of adults are obese, and another one-third are overweight.

But obesity alone might not be the only factor. Indeed, the researchers point out that smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol may all play a role in both cardiovascular disease occurrence and deaths.

In France and Italy, where obesity rates remain low, the slowdown in cardiovascular disease mortality rates was among the most notable, the researchers said.

“These increases in obesity levels mean that a significant portion of the population has been exposed to the cardiovascular disease risks associated with being overweight for several decades,” said Alan Lopez, PhD, professor and one of the researchers on the study in a statement.

Despite their findings, Lopez and his co-researcher, Tim Adair, PhD, said it’s not yet clear what’s causing the sudden change.

They point out people know more about heart disease risk factors and have more access to medications and other intervention strategies than ever before.

Additionally, a new category of high blood pressure has been introduced in recent years which could help millions.

Prehypertension was added to the lexicon of strategies for diagnosing and preventing cardiovascular disease in 2004. This early-stage diagnosis is meant to help doctors and patients get ahead of an impending diagnosis and make lifestyle or pharmaceutical changes that could prevent future complications.

“In order to combat this, significant investment in preventive health measures is needed, particularly those aimed at increasing physical activity, improving diet, and reducing obesity,” Adair said in a statement. “Failure to address these issues could confirm the end of the long-term decline in cardiovascular disease deaths and threaten future gains in life expectancy.”

But another school of thought says these numbers may actually reflect increased awareness of heart disease as the public health community effectively communicates what heart disease looks like, said Dr. Dwithiya K. Thomas, FACC, the director of the Women’s Heart Center at St. Luke’s University Health Network.

“Although this may sound counterintuitive, some of the lack of decline or increase in the incidence of heart disease should be applauded,” she said. “With individuals becoming more aware of what to look for, they seek help rather than ignoring the symptoms or concerns that lead to heart-related events and disease development. As a result, more heart disease is picked up on and managed, but with that the incidence also increases.”

Thomas pointed out that more people are living with heart disease for longer due to medical breakthroughs.

“Another reason I feel there is an increase or lack of decrease in the incidence of heart disease is that with improving medical technology and treatments, more is able to be done to preserve life,” she said. “With increased life expectancy, more heart disease is also seen in the older population.”

“In order to reverse this trend of steady or rising incidence of heart disease, we need to be more vigilant in controlling our risk factors,” Thomas said.

That may sound simple, but Dr. Sanjiv Patel, cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California told Healthline that’s not always easy to attain in today’s fast-paced world that is “besieged by multiple distractions.”

“Less stress, consuming healthier food, more exercise, better and regular sleep, are imperative to achieving overall wellness,” he said.

“Striving to control the risk factors for heart disease is important and that can be accomplished by abstaining from smoking, blood pressure control, cholesterol control, diabetes control, and losing weight,” he added.

The best way to combat cardiovascular disease in your own life is to understand the risk factors and causes, then work to prevent or eliminate them. This may take intervention with a healthcare provider.

You may also need to adopt healthy-living habits like more frequent exercise and a more heart-healthy diet.

Yearly physicals can also help you and your doctor monitor your blood pressure, which may be one of the first indications of a potential problem. Together, you can work to make sure your risks don’t become larger health issues that could even be fatal.