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Heart Disease: World’s Number One Killer



Heart disease has remained the leading cause of death at the global level for the last 20 years and is now killing more people than ever before, according to a new report released by the World Health Organization (WHO).


“The number of deaths from heart disease increased by more than two million since 2000, to nearly 9 million in 2019,” states the WHO’s 2019 Global Health Estimates.  “Heart disease now represents 16% of total deaths from all causes.”


Heart disease is one of the noncommunicable diseases, which now make up 7 of the world’s top 10 causes of death. “These seven causes accounted for 44% of all deaths or 80% of the top ten,” the report said.  “However, all noncommunicable diseases together accounted for 74% of deaths globally in 2019.”


The world’s biggest killer is ischemic heart disease, responsible for 16% of the world’s total deaths.  Since 2000, the largest increase in deaths has been for this disease.  Stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases are the second and third leading causes of death, responsible for approximately 11% and 6% of total deaths, respectively.


The good news is: there is a global decline in deaths from communicable diseases.  For example, HIV/AIDS dropped from the 8th leading cause of death in 2000 to the 19th in 2019, “reflecting the success of efforts to prevent infection, test for the virus and treat the disease over the last two decades.”


The report, released last December 9, took notice of the appearance of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).  “As of today, COVID-19 has tragically claimed more than 1.5 million lives,” it stated.  “People living with pre-existing health conditions (such as heart disease, diabetes and respiratory conditions) are at higher risk of complications and death due to COVID-19.”


Now, going back to heart.  So many have been said about it.  “A loving heart is the beginning of all knowledge,” said Thomas Carlyle.  “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye,” penned Antoine de Saint-Exupery.


Famous author Charlotte Bronte wrote, “The human heart has hidden treasures, in secret kept, in silence sealed.  The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures, whose charms were broken if revealed.” For her part, Princess Diana suggested, “Only do what you heart tells you.”


The human heart, a muscular organ roughly the size of a closed fist, beats 100,000 times a day, pushing 5,000 gallons of blood through the body every 24 hours.  It delivers oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to human tissues and carries away waste.


“The heart contracts at different rates depending on many factors,” wrote Tim Newman for Medical News Today.  “At rest, it might beat around 60 times a minute, but it can increase to 100 beats a minute or more.”

Courtesy of WHO


Like other parts of the body, a range of conditions affect the heart.  “Diseases under the heart disease umbrella include blood vessel diseases, such as coronary artery disease; heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias); and heart defects you’re born with (congenital heart defects), among others,” the Mayo Clinic states.


The term “heart disease” is often used interchangeably with the term “cardiovascular disease.”  Mayo Clinic explains, “Cardiovascular disease generally refers to conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, chest pain (angina) or stroke.  Other heart conditions, such as those that affect your heart’s muscle, valves or rhythm, also are considered a form of heart disease.”


Generally, heart disease is a medical emergency.  In fact, don’t wait to go to the hospital if you have these heart disease symptoms: chest pain, shortness of breath, and fainting.


“Heart disease is easier to treat when detected early, so talk to your doctor about your concerns regarding your heart health,” the Mayo Clinic advises.  “If you’re concerned about developing heart disease, talk to your doctor about steps you can take to reduce your heart disease risk.”


Among the risk factors you can do something about include smoking (heart attacks are more common in smokers), poor diet (especially those high in fat, salt, sugar and cholesterol), physical inactivity, stress (unrelieved stress may damage your arteries), obesity (excess weight worsens other risk factors), and poor hygiene.


High blood pressure, high blood cholesterol levels, diabetes, and certain chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapy for cancer are also risk factors for heart disease.  If you have any of these risk factors, you need to see a doctor to know what you can do about them.


But there are risk factors which are beyond your control.  Aging, for instance, increases your risk of damaged and narrowed arteries and weakened or thickened heart muscle.  Being male is another one; men are generally at greater risk of heart disease.  Women’s risk increases after menopause.


Heredity is still another.  “A family history of heart disease increases your risk of coronary artery disease, especially if a parent developed it at an early age (before age 55 for a male relative, such as your brother or father, and 65 for a female relative, such as your mother or sister),” the Mayo Clinic states.


Among the complications of heart disease are: heart failure, heart attack, stroke, aneurysm, peripheral artery disease, and sudden cardiac arrest.  

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