Nov. 22, 2010 -- Deaths from congenital heart defects in both children and adults have declined substantially in recent years, according to new research.
''From 1999 to 2006, we saw a 24% decrease in death rates resulting from congenital heart disease among all ages," says researcher Suzanne Gilboa, PhD, an epidemiologist at the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities at the CDC.
The decline continues a trend that has been ongoing for decades, Gilboa says, and wasn't unexpected.
In a comparable study published in 2001, deaths due to congenital heart defects dropped 39% from 1979 to 1997.
"We don't really know why," she tells WebMD. However, she says, "We speculate it has a lot to do with the kind of treatment that children who are born with congenital heart disease get."
Death Rates From Congenital Heart Disease
For the new study, Gilboa and her colleagues used data from death certificates filed in the U.S. from 1999 to 2006, calculating the annual death rates from congenital heart disease by age at death, sex, and ethnicity.
They looked only at death rates, not whether congenital heart disease itself was increasing or decreasing.
Among the congenital heart disease diagnoses were atrial septal defect (the wall separating the upper chambers or atria doesn't close completely), ventricular septal defect (one or more holes in the wall separating the right and left ventricles), and patent ductus arteriosus (failure of a blood vessel called the ductus arteriosus to close, resulting in abnormal blood flow).
The researchers found:
- 41,494 deaths related to congenital heart disease; for 27,960 of these congenital heart defects was the underlying cause. Death rates were highest among non-Hispanic blacks.
- For Hispanics, death rates were comparable to those of whites in some age groups, but death rates were lower for some age groups in Hispanics compared to whites.
- Deaths from congenital heart disease dropped an average of 3.6% each year during the years studied, for a total 24% decline.
- Infant deaths account for nearly half (48.1%) of all deaths from congenital heart disease.
''This is very exciting news,'' says Gerard Martin, MD, senor vice president of Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and chair of the Adult Congenital and Pediatric Cardiology Council for the American College of Cardiology.
He reviewed the study findings for WebMD but was not involved in the study.
"It's exciting news for parents who have a child with congenital heart disease and it's exciting news for all the professionals who take care of children with congenital heart disease. I believe it confirms what we all feel -- that we are improving in the care we deliver to individuals with congenital heart disease, which is the most common birth defect in children."
''We don't know a lot about what causes congenital heart disease," Gilboa tells WebMD.
Even so, a woman who is planning a pregnancy can take measures to reduce the risk of having a child with such a defect, she says.
Obesity and diabetes both increase the risk of having a child with a congenital heart defect, Gilboa says. "Smoking during the first trimester is another risk factor for having a child with a congenital heart defect."
For adults living with a congenital heart defect, both Gilboa and Martin agree, it's crucial for them to find a good adult cardiologist with experience treating congenital heart disease.
Currently, Martin says, the number of cardiologists who specialize in the care of adults with congenital heart disease is not large. One U.S. organization that can provide a listing of such cardiologists is the Adult Congenital Heart Association, he says.