Opinion

Reduction in deaths from heart disease is a cause for celebration

Bríd Hehir wants to spread some good news about public health

My colleagues in NHS communications struggle to get the media interested in positive health stories. It seems the only time the press expresses an interest is when there’s a whiff of a scandal. Bad news sells. That we’re living longer and healthier lives doesn’t.

Colleagues could therefore be forgiven for missing the brief flurry of publicity that surrounded recent published findings from a study in the European Heart Journal. Death rates have more than halved in a number of countries in the European Union since the early 1980s. That’s good news because heart disease is a leading cause of death there.

Nick Townsend of the British Heart Foundation, who co-authored the report, had looked at deaths from coronary heart disease over a period of almost 30 years - from 1980 to 2009, in men and women, and in four age groups: under 45, 45-54, 55-64, and 65 years and older.

The team found that almost all European Union countries had a large and significant decrease in death rates from heart disease in men and women over the past three decades when all the age groups were considered together.

The UK, Denmark, Malta, The Netherlands and Sweden had the largest declines in death rates for both sexes. The decreases were small and not statistically significant in eastern European men in Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Only in Romanian men was there a small but statistically significant increase.

The good news has been replicated in the United States also. There has been a substantial and persistent decline in deaths from heart disease every year since 1968. In 2012, around 600,000 Americans died from heart disease. While that’s still a lot of people, almost 1.5million would have died had the death rate remained at its 1968 levels.

Although the European study did not look specifically for causes, the improvement is thought likely to be due to the revolutionary nature of treatment now available due to scientific, medical and technological breakthroughs. Thanks to anti-hypertensives, heart fortifying drugs, statins and pacemakers, millions of people are now controlling and managing their long term medical conditions - and living longer.

And that’s something that should be celebrated. OK, so we all know that we have a way to go still. Cardiovascular diseases such as coronary heart disease and strokes are still the UK’s biggest killers. More than two million people here are living with coronary heart disease alone.

But it’s important to acknowledge that we are making progress. Many people are genetically susceptible to CHD irrespective of other risk factors. But they are sometimes made to feel guilty by the blame inducing, public health messages that predict future time bombs, when many of the messages may arguably be irrelevant to them.

That’s important when it comes to future healthcare management. As more people live with damaged hearts in the community, the support needed from GP, practice and community nursing services needs to revolutionise also, to stay abreast of developments and treatments so as to advise them appropriately and enable people with the condition live the longer and fulfilling lives they deserve.

Brid Hehir

About the author

Bríd Hehir is a fundraising manager for the Do Good Charity, which sponsors nurse training and education in Africa. She worked in the NHS until 2011 as a nurse, midwife and specialist heath visitor, and latterly a senior manager. She is a regular contributor to spiked and is a Battle of Ideas committee member.

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