Despite all the advancements of modern medicine, the number of people affected by cardiovascular diseases in developed countries is on the rise. According to the analysis performed by the journal "The Lancet", the number of people affected by peripheral arterial disease has increased by 24% from 2000 to 2010. Estimates also show that the number of Americans with arrhythmias will double in the next 35 years.1 Moreover, this trend is also affecting younger people. According to the research performed at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, in 1994, only 13% of people between the ages of 20 to 54 had a stroke, while in 2005, that number grew to 19%.2
Chronic illnesses that are affecting the heart are also becoming more prevalent among children. A study released by the American Health Association in July 2013 found that, over 13-year period, the number of young children and teens developing hypertension rose by 27%.3
What is the cause of all these alarming trends in both young people and the older generation?
The following are a number of factors:
Obesity: Many respectable articles blame obesity as the number one culprit for the rising occurrence of heart diseases. However, a study performed by National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hyattsville, Maryland together with United States Public Health Service, Rockville, Maryland in 2011-2012 has shown that, despite the fact that the percentage of obese people in United States is very large, this percentage is not rising.
For example, in the United States in 2011-2012, 8.1% of infants’ and toddlers’ weight was too high for their length, and 16.9% of children and teenagers (from 2 to 19 years old) and 34.9% of adults (20 years old and above) were obese. Nevertheless, when comparing this data to the data collected in 2003-2004, there wasn’t any significant change in these numbers.4
Smoking: Smoking is one of the leading risk factors for developing atherosclerosis, which eventually results in various cardiovascular diseases. However, if the percentage of people with cardiovascular diseases is rising, so should the percentage of smokers.
In reality, however, the percentage of smokers has been steadily dropping. For example, a National Youth Risk Behavior Survey has shown that the number of teen smokers has been steadily dropping. From 1997 to 2013 the percentage of teen smokers has dropped from 36.4% to 15.7%.5 The same can be said about adults. According to The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the decrease in adult smoking has been occurring much more gradually, and has dropped from 33% in 1965 to 28.8% in 2008 (for non-Hispanic white males).6
Longevity: Another factor that is often blamed for the rising percentage of cardiovascular diseases is the increasing life expectancy. While this may be true to some extent, the life expectancy is not rising nearly as fast as the percentage of people with heart disease, high blood pressure, and peripheral artery disease.
Genetic Load: Despite the fact that major studies show the number of people affected by cardiovascular diseases is on the rise, the number of major coronary events is actually decreasing. Over the past 30 years, the number of hospitalizations and deaths due to cardiovascular diseases has been steadily decreasing.7,8 This decrease is possible thanks to modern drugs and treatment methods. Even people with cardiovascular diseases can live long and productive lives. And that is exactly the reason for the growing number of cases of cardiovascular disease.
This phenomenon is called the genetic load.9 The genetic load of populations in developed countries is rapidly increasing, since people who would otherwise die, now due to advancements in medicine, live long enough to have children of their own. This causes the percentage of people with genetic diseases to rapidly increase. For example, the percentage of Americans affected by diabetes has risen from less than 1% 1958 to over 14% in 2010, and it is believed that by the year 2050, 21% of people in the United States will be affected.10,11,12 The same is true for other hereditary diseases which, in turn, increase the likelihood of cardiovascular diseases.13
Despite the fact that the percentage of deaths from heart attacks, strokes, etc. is gradually decreasing, the number of people affected by various cardiovascular diseases is actually on the rise. Hopefully, scientists will soon discover ways to prevent genetic diseases from being passed on and affecting new generations of offspring.
1 The Lancet, news release, July 31, 2013
2 Brett Kissela, M.D., M.S., professor, vice chairman of neurology, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, Ohio; Ralph Sacco, M.D., chairman, neurology, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Florida; Oct. 10, 2012, Neurology online
3 Ana Paredes, M.D., pediatric nephrologist, Miami Children's Hospital; David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director, Yale University Prevention Research Center, New Haven, Conn.; August 2013 Hypertension
6 Cigarette Smoking—United States, 1965–2008 January 14, 2011 / Vol. 60 / No. 01 / pp. 109–13, Supplements
10 CDC. National diabetes fact sheet: national estimates and general information on diabetes and prediabetes in the United States, 2011. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services, CDC; 2011. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pubs/factsheet11.htm. Accessed September 20, 2012.
11 CDC. Diabetes data and trends. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services, CDC, National Diabetes Surveillance System.
Available at www.cdc.gov/diabetes/statistics. Accessed November 8, 2012.
12 Geiss LS, Cowie C. Type 2 diabetes and persons at high risk of diabetes. In: Venkat Narayan KM, Williams D, Gregg EW, Cowie C, eds. Diabetes public health: from data to policy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2011:15–32.