Baylor College of Medicine

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Heart disease remains the leading cause of death worldwide

Graciela Gutierrez


Houston, TX -

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death worldwide, according to the 2021 Statistical Update from the American Heart Association, written by a collaboration of healthcare professionals led by Dr. Salim Virani, professor of medicine - cardiology at Baylor College of Medicine and a staff cardiologist at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Experts believe these numbers will be impacted by COVID-19 in the coming years.  

Virani chairs the committee made up of expert volunteers working on behalf of the American Heart Association’s Council on Epidemiology and Prevention Statistics Committee and Stroke Statistics Subcommittee. He also is lead author on the data published online today in the journal Circulation.

The report found that globally, nearly 18.6 million people died of cardiovascular disease in 2019 (latest data recorded). Over the past decade, the number of deaths has increased 17.1%. There were more than 523.2 million cases of cardiovascular disease in 2019, an increase of 26.6% compared with 2010.

Virani and his colleagues say the impact of COVID-19 on cardiovascular disease is not entirely known at this time, but it is expected to play a role in cardiovascular health and mortality rates for many years.

“This could be caused directly by the virus, as well as a result of increased lifestyle-related risks during and after the pandemic,” Virani said. “Research is showing that the unique coronavirus can cause damage to the heart. Importantly, we also know people have delayed getting care for heart attacks and strokes, which can result in poorer outcomes.” Read more about indirect effects of the pandemic on the heart here.

Lifestyle changes related to the extraordinary circumstances faced by almost everyone dealing with COVID-19, such as lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating habits, increased alcohol consumption and mental stress brought on by quarantine isolation, fear of the virus, job loss or financial stress, can adversely impact a person’s risk for cardiovascular health. He said these behavioral trends will need to be watched and addressed as the full ramifications will likely be felt in the coming years.

Another finding the group noted in the 2021 Statistical Update was the importance of maternal health complications and how those affect cardiovascular health of mothers and their babies.

Pregnancy complications, including hypertensive disorders, gestational diabetes, preterm births and small-for-gestational-age at birth deliveries, occur in 10% to 20% of all pregnancies in the U.S. Cardiovascular deaths are the most common cause (26.5%) of maternal death in the U.S.

“There can be long-term effects on offspring of women who suffer pregnancy-related complications. But we can also help impact the health of future generations because as we help women learn to reduce their cardiovascular risk, they’re likely to adopt healthier lifestyles. In turn, they can influence the health behaviors of their families,” Virani said.

The annual report tracks trends related to ideal cardiovascular health, social determinants of health, global cardiovascular health, cardiovascular health genetics and healthcare costs. It represents a compilation of the newest, most relevant statistics on heart disease, stroke and risk factors impacting cardiovascular health. Virani emphasized the importance of this surveillance as a critical resource for the lay public, policy makers, media professionals, clinicians, healthcare administrators, researchers, health advocates and others seeking the best available data on these factors and conditions.

The U.S. data is gathered in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies, while the global trends are provided by the Global Burden of Disease Study from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

Co-authors are Alvaro Alonso, M.D., Ph.D.; Hugo J. Aparicio, M.D., M.P.H.; Emelia J. Benjamin, M.D., Sc.M.; Marcio S. Bittencourt, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H.; Clifton W. Callaway, M.D., Ph.D.; April P. Carson, Ph.D., M.S.P.H.; Alanna M. Chamberlain, Ph.D., M.P.H.; Susan Cheng, M.D., M.M.Sc., M.P.H.; Francesca N. Delling, M.D., M.P.H.; Mitchell S.V. Elkind, M.D., M.S.; Kelly R. Evenson, Ph.D., M.S.; Jane F. Ferguson, Ph.D.; Deepak K. Gupta, M.D., M.S.CI.; Sadiya S. Khan, M.D., M.Sc.; Brett M. Kissela, M.D., M.S.; Kristen L. Knutson, Ph.D.; Chong D. Lee, Ed.D., M.Ed.; Tené T. Lewis, Ph.D.; Junxiu Liu, Ph.D.; Matthew Shane Loop, Ph.D.; Pamela L. Lutsey, Ph.D., M.P.H;  Jun Ma, M.D., Ph.D.; Jason Mackey, M.D.; Seth S. Martin, M.D., M.H.S.; David B. Matchar, M.D.; Michael E. Mussolino, Ph.D.; Sankar D. Navaneethan, M.D., M.S., M.P.H.; Amanda Marma Perak, M.D., M.S.; Gregory A. Roth, M.D.; M.P.H.; Zainab Samad, M.D.; Gary M. Satou,; M.D.; Emily B. Schroeder, M.D., Ph.D.; Svati H. Shah, M.D., M.H.S.; Christina M. Shay, Ph.D.; Andrew Stokes, Ph.D.; Lisa B. VanWagner, M.D., M.Sc.; Nae-Yuh Wang, Ph.D., M.S.; Connie W. Tsao, M.D., M.P.H. Author disclosures are in the manuscript.


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