Heart disease in rapid decline

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The Independent Online
HEART DISEASE is falling so fast among men in the upper social classes that heart-attack deaths below retirement age are becoming a thing of the past, a leading epidemiologist said yesterday.

The single biggest killer of men and women in the UK claims 150,000 lives a year, but the rate is falling by 4 per cent annually and is set to drop below 100,000 deaths within 25 years, according to a report by the National Heart Forum.

Klim McPherson, professor of public health epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: "Men under 65 are eliminating the disease - it is going down fast. Social class I men are becoming almost risk-free."

The trend is also clear in women, though less dramatically. There is little difference in cholesterol levels between the upper and lower social classes - the main risk factor for heart disease - but the advantage enjoyed by the rich is believed to be because they eat more fruit and vegetables, smoke less, exercise more and have better medical care.

The rapid fall in heart disease rates among the rich shows what can be achieved when the risk factors are altered, experts from the forum, an alliance of 40 medical organisations, said yesterday. But they warned that progress in the UK was still too slow and the gap between the social classes was widening.

Speaking at the launch of a report, Looking to the Future, Gerald Shaper, emeritus professor of clinical epidemiology at the Royal Free hospital in London, said Britain had been slower to recognise the importance of diet than other countries, such as the US and Australia, where death rates are 30 per cent lower than in the UK.

"The composition of the diet is the fundamental factor making people susceptible to heart disease. All other factors, such as smoking and high blood pressure, are aggravating factors. The US moved to alter the diet a decade before Britain. We have been very reluctant to accept that it is a nutritional disease," he said.