That translates into 160,000 fewer deaths in 2005, the latest year for which the CDC has compiled detailed mortality data. If the trend holds, the AHA calculates that 2008 data will show a 36% drop in heart disease deaths and a 34% drop in stroke deaths compared with 1999.
Will these trends hold? AHA President Dan Jones, MD, vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, says there are troubling signs they may not.
"I don't think we should assume continued progress," Jones tells WebMD. "In some areas, there has been little or no progress. For example, if you look at child obesity and the increasing rates of diabetes and heart disease that will come from that -- well, unless we get that under control we will see a leveling off or worsening of heart disease and stroke death rates in days to come."
Also troubling is the death-rate disparity evident in the CDC's final numbers for 2005. Gains for women, African-Americans, people living in the South, and people with lower income levels lag behind the national average.
"There are still disparities across economic, education, gender, race, and geographic lines," Jones says. "If you combine those -- say for African-Americans living in the Deep South -- there is a substantial disparity. We know these are complex issues, but we can overcome many of these disparities. Access to care is one thing we can and should solve in our country."
Why Heart/Stroke Deaths Are Down
Despite these cautions, the new numbers really do show substantial national progress. Though the data don't show exactly what caused the lower death rates, Jones points to several factors:
- Improved emergency treatment for stroke
- Improved treatment for heart attack
- Improved treatment for blocked arteries
- Widespread use of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs
- Aggressive management of high blood pressure
- Tobacco excise taxes
- Antismoking and clean-air legislation
Jones notes that many of today's advances are the returns on investments made years ago in basic research.
"We have lost some momentum in funding basic research, and we need to get back on track," he says.
Meanwhile, the AHA will intensify its efforts to prevent heart disease and stroke.
"We will never let go of the important things we do to improve treatment, but we will focus more on prevention -- and at younger ages," Jones says.