ATLANTA — For decades, heart disease death rates have been falling. But a new study shows a troubling turn: more women under 45 are dying of heart disease because of clogged arteries, and the death rate for men that age has leveled off.
The rates will have to be monitored to see if this is the beginning of a real trend. But if the data holds, the new study may be an early glimpse of the effect of escalating obesity and diabetes on U.S. deaths, said Wayne Rosamond, a University of North Carolina epidemiology professor and expert on heart disease statistics.
“We have a pretty rosy view of how things are going in the war against cardiovascular disease,” said Dr. Anthony DeMaria, editor of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. “I view this paper as a wake-up call that says there is a very important segment of our population that needs some attention.”
To be sure, the overall trend is still positive: From 1980 through 2002, the death rate from blocked heart arteries was cut in half for men and women over 35. Improvements in treatment and preventive measures, including cholesterol-lowering medications, get the credit.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, killing almost 700,000 Americans each year.
Nearly 500,000 of those deaths are attributed to coronary heart disease, in which fat and plaque clog the arteries feeding blood to the heart, sometimes called hardening of the arteries. Heart attacks are a common result.
It can take many years for arteries to get dangerously blocked. About 93 percent of deaths occur in people 55 and older.
But a combination of factors — including genetics, obesity and high cholesterol — are sometimes fatal for younger adults. In 2002, about 25,000 men and 8,000 women ages 35 to 54 died of coronary heart disease.
The study found the death rate for women ages 35 to 44 rose from 1997 to 2002, when the rate was 8.2 per 100,000 women, the highest it’s been since 1987.
In actual numbers, the increase amounts to roughly 100 added deaths a year of women in that age group.
The rates for men age 35 to 44 were relatively stable in the last few years of the study period. The rate was 26 deaths per 100,000 men in that age group in 2002.
The study was done by researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Control and Prevention and Britain’s University of Liverpool.