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Political willpower needed to tackle heart disease crisis

Dr Charmaine Griffiths, Chief Executive | British Heart Foundation

5 min read Partner content

Recent British Heart Foundation (BHF) analysis confirms that we are losing hard-won progress to reduce early death from cardiovascular disease

The latest figures show that the number and rate of people dying before the age of 75 in England from heart and circulatory diseases is at its highest level for more than a decade. In 2022 alone, an average of 750 people died each week from conditions including heart attacks, coronary heart disease and stroke before reaching their 75th birthday.  It is a heartbreaking picture.

This new trend is especially worrying because until 2012, premature deaths from cardiovascular disease had been in decline for decades. In fact, it’s the first time in almost 60 years that we have seen a clear reversal in the trend.

These stark statistics are sobering evidence of a heart care crisis that has been many years in the making. However, this is far from an inevitability - many cardiovascular conditions are preventable and treatable. We know that with enough political willpower and bold action, we can stop far too many families from losing their loved ones far too soon.

Warning signs

To understand how Government can put an end to the heartbreak, we need to understand why we’re seeing an upturn in premature deaths from cardiovascular disease.

In 1961, the year the British Heart Foundation was founded, over half of all deaths in England were from cardiovascular disease. The annual number has since halved, thanks in part to groundbreaking scientific discoveries and lifesaving medical advances, alongside plummeting smoking rates.

But from 2012, the decline in the number and rate of deaths before the age of 75 significantly slowed. Even more concerningly, since 2020, the premature death rate for cardiovascular disease has risen year-on-year.

The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly had a significant impact, but ultimately, we don’t know exactly what is driving the rise in early deaths from cardiovascular disease. The reasons are likely multiple and complex.

However, we do know that in the last few years, increasing pressure on the NHS has likely played its part. People living with heart disease must contend with long waits for tests and treatment and intervals between their medical reviews becoming too long.  We also need more research into the long-term impact of Covid-19 infection on the heart.

However, warning signs of impending lost progress to reduce deaths from cardiovascular disease have been present for over a decade.

Since 2010, the health gap between rich and poor has significantly widened. The most deprived parts of England have been getting sicker, with stalling improvement in healthy life expectancy and increasing rates of some cardiovascular conditions.

At the same time, there hasn’t been enough action to address cardiovascular risk factors over the last decade. Millions of people are living with undiagnosed risk factors, such as high blood pressure, raised cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes, and nearly two thirds of adults in England have a weight classed as overweight or obese. This is storing up huge problems for the future.

All of this adds up to the worst heart care crisis in living memory. Despite the very best efforts of our NHS staff, every part of the system providing heart care is damaged, from prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, to crucial research that could give us faster and better treatments. This is happening at a time when more people are getting sicker and need the NHS more than ever. Tragically, we are still seeing more excess deaths involving cardiovascular disease than any other disease group.

Our hearts need more

We can’t let this tragedy continue. With urgent and long-overdue intervention, we can get back on track to regain lost progress in saving more lives from cardiovascular disease.

Politicians from all sides have recognised the scale of the challenge ahead. The Government’s interim report on the Major Conditions Strategy last made clear the urgency of the rising tide of cardiovascular disease in the UK.  Meanwhile, Labour has pledged to significantly reduce deaths from heart attack and stroke by 25 per cent over the next decade if the Party is elected to Government.

But these welcome commitments must bring forth immediate action to make a difference.
As the data shows, in the last few years limited progress has been made to meaningfully tackle cardiovascular disease, which remains one of the biggest killers in the UK.

To stop the heart care crisis in its tracks, we need a three-pronged approach.

  1. Improving the prevention of the causes of cardiovascular disease, with a focus on the drivers of health inequalities such as obesity and smoking;
  2. Making NHS heart care a priority, with specific plans for cardiovascular disease that identify and address NHS cardiac staffing gaps so patients get the care they need more quickly;
  3. Supercharging cardiovascular research to unlock groundbreaking treatments and cures of the future. 

Now more than ever before, our hearts need protection. The NHS Long Term Plan makes clear that cardiovascular disease is the single biggest area where lives can be saved. With a general election on the horizon, there’s never been a better time for politicians to show they’re serious about improving the health of the nation’s hearts, and keeping families and friends together for longer.

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