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Heart Disease: A Global Epidemic

Cardiovascular disease -- or heart disease -- exists in epidemic proportions across the world. Cardiovascular disease is actually an umbrella term covering a broad range of diseases that includes high blood pressure, coronary heart disease (heart attack and chest pain), heart failure, stroke, and congenital defects. Alarmingly, the simple means of controlling this disease -- maintaining a healthy diet and making appropriate lifestyle choices -- are underutilized.

The Leading Cause of Death in Industrialized Nations

According to the World Health Organization, cardiovascular disease kills nearly 17 million people around the world each year. It is the leading cause of mortality throughout Europe, accounting for more than 4 million deaths annually. And the devastation associated with cardiovascular disease involves more than mortality alone. It is a major cause of chronic illness and physical disability, a major economic burden for both patients and healthcare systems worldwide. Heart disease respects no socioeconomic, gender, or geographic boundaries. Although risk increases with age, cardiovascular disease is occurring increasingly in younger patients, even children.

America's Leading Killer

In the United States, heart disease has been the leading underlying cause of death nearly every year since 1900. Only the flu pandemic of 1918, which took at least 500,000 American lives, exceeded heart disease as the country's number one killer.

Heart disease takes another American life every 36 seconds -- nearly 2,400 each day. Mortality from cardiovascular disease is greater than that of cancer, lower respiratory diseases, accidents, and diabetes combined.

In 2004, more than 36 percent of all deaths in the US -- more than 871,000 -- were traceable to cardiovascular disease. Fully 32 percent of these deaths were premature (in patients under 75 years of age) and 147,000 were in patients aged less than 65 years. By comparison, in that same year, there were approximately 550,000 cancer deaths, 109,000 accidental deaths, 66,000 deaths from Alzheimer's disease, and 13,000 deaths from AIDS.

If all major forms of heart disease were eradicated, the average lifespan in the United States would be nearly seven years longer.

A Growing Problem In Developing Countries

Long considered a disease of affluence, cardiovascular disease is now a major presence in all but the poorest countries, accounting for twice as many deaths in developing countries as in industrialized nations.

The emergence of heart disease in developing countries is directly attributable to the effects of industrialization and urbanization. With socioeconomic development, populations have adopted the diet and lifestyle of affluent nations. Increased consumption of fats and calories; reduced consumption of fiber, fresh fruits, and vegetables; a dramatic increase in tobacco use; and physical inactivity have resulted in widespread cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes.

The Need to Act

Patients with heart disease are regularly counseled on how to improve their diet and increase their exercise to help reduce the symptoms and worsening of their illness. But most people put little effort into protecting their health by improving their diet and exercise until after problems occur. An alarming increase in obesity and type 2 diabetes -- even in children as young as six years -- suggests that the heart disease epidemic may continue for decades to come.