Death rates in England and Wales have fallen dramatically, by 25 per cent among men and 22 per cent among women, over the last decade, latest figures show.

A decline in smoking, improved treatment for heart disease and earlier diagnosis of cancer have contributed to the steep fall, the Office for National Statistics said.

Everyone has to die sometime, but the figures, published yesterday, are "age standardised" to reflect the fact that we are living longer and dying later. On that basis, there were 6,579 deaths per million population in men and 4,633 per million in women in 2009, the lowest ever recorded rate.

Circulatory diseases – heart attacks, strokes and vascular disease – fell 42 per cent in men and 40 per cent in women over the decade.

Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, said improved treatment, shorter waiting times and better drugs such as anti-clotting agents, blood pressure pills and cholesterol-lowering statins had all contributed.

"There has been a laudable attempt to focus on our biggest killer. NHS trusts have been forced to report how many patients are admitted with heart attacks, how quickly they are treated and what drugs they are discharged on. It has been a huge stimulus to improve the quality of care," he said.

Cancer death rates are also down, by 15 per cent among men and 12 per cent among women, and accounted for a quarter of all deaths in 2009.

The disease is becoming more common as the population ages, but more people are living with the disease for longer, in some cases for decades. Improved screening and awareness are also leading to earlier diagnosis and treatment.

Infant mortality, regarded as the touchstone of a nation's health and the quality of its maternity services, also hit a record low last year, at 4.7 deaths (under one year of age) per 1,000 live births.