Due to Skyrocketing Obesity and Diabetes, Young People, Women, and Non-Smokers are More Likely to Suffer Heart Attacks

One of America’s greatest achievements over much of the past century has been a huge decline in death rates from heart disease and strokes. Anti-smoking campaigns, medications to control blood pressure and cholesterol, and surgical advances have extended millions of lives, fundamentally reshaping the U.S. population.

Now, progress has stalled. That’s helping drive down life expectancy in the U.S. after decades in which each generation of Americans could expect to live longer than the one that came before.

The death rate for cardiovascular disease—which includes heart disease and strokes—has fallen just 4% since 2011 after dropping more than 70% over six decades, according to mortality statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Particularly alarming is that the death rate is actually rising for middle-aged Americans.

The overall cardiovascular-disease death rate is an under-recognized contributor to the recent decline in U.S. life expectancy. While that has been driven mostly by deaths from drug overdoses and suicides, improvements in cardiovascular health are no longer providing a counterbalance.

Among victims are John Singleton, the 51-year-old filmmaker behind the movie “Boyz N The Hood,” and actor Luke Perry, the 52-year-old former star of “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Both died of strokes earlier this year.

Heart disease was once on course to fall below cancer as the nation’s leading cause of death, a change public-health statisticians most recently predicted would occur by 2020. No longer, said Robert Anderson, chief of the CDC’s mortality statistics branch. “It’s highly unlikely given the current trend that there will be a crossover anytime soon,” he said.

The obesity epidemic and related rise in the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes are key culprits in the new wave of cardiovascular disease mortality, researchers and cardiologists say. Studies have linked obesity and diabetes to high blood pressure and other conditions that increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes and heart failure.

“It’s a really major driver,” said Stephen Sidney, director of research clinics at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research, who has studied the changes in cardiovascular disease mortality rates. Obesity began rising across the U.S. population in the early 1980s, and Type 2 diabetes rates accelerated several years later. That has given both “enough time to really impact in a negative way on the population,” Dr. Sidney said.

Nearly 40% of U.S. adults age 20 and over are obese, another 32% are overweight, and 9.4% of U.S. adults 18 and over have diabetes, according to the CDC.

The consequences of obesity are eroding the enormous gains brought about by public-health campaigns against smoking, along with medical innovations such as cholesterol-lowering statin drugs. Statins, which were introduced starting in the late 1980s, have prevented millions of Americans from developing life-threatening blockages in their blood vessels that can cause heart attacks.

“You couldn’t see the effects of the obesity epidemic when we were in the process of getting people to use statins,” said Steven Nissen, chief academic officer of the Heart and Vascular Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. Now, he said, “we’ve got a counterforce here.”

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SOURCE: Wall Street Journal, Betsy McKay