How’s this for heartening: the number of people in Europe dying from heart disease has more than halved since the 1980s. Halved. In almost every EU country there has been a ‘dramatic drop’ in death by cardiovascular disease, said a study published last week in the European Heart Journal. Among both women and men (yes, even among blokes, those apparently health-unaware ticking timebombs of physical malaise), and among every age group, including the over-65s, there has been a ‘large and significant decrease in death rates from heart disease’, said the study. If anything deserves a ‘Wow’, it’s these findings.
In a nutshell: in the space of one generation, in the time it took for Madonna to go from singing ‘Holiday’ to adopting black babies from Africa, mankind has won some massive, tide-turning battles in the war on heart disease. Which is really a war on nature, of course - on capricious nature’s failure to provide us with hearts that can withstand all the crap we throw at them, from physical exertion to fatty foods to emotional stress.
Even in the US, which some Europeans have a sniffy tendency to look upon as a land of elephantine eating habits and corresponding bodily rot, heart disease is in retreat from humanity’s scalpel-waving charge: there’s been ‘a substantial, persistent and remarkable decline in deaths from heart disease’ in the US, as one study puts it. In every year since 1968, heart-disease death rates in the US have fallen. In 2012, around 600,000 Americans died from heart disease; sad, yes – but if the death rate had remained at its 1968 levels, closer to 1.5million would have died.
Mankind’s creeping victory over heart disease is, ultimately, a story of targeted human endeavour, of scientific and technological discoveries conspiring to do away with one of the major ailments that prevents people from living full, long lives. Anti-smoking moral entrepreneurs, adept at hogging the headlines, insist heart-disease death rates are falling because people are giving up cigarettes. In truth, it’s a combination of medical and technological breakthroughs – from the development of various heart-fortifying drugs to the invention of machines that keep pumping blood around the body during surgery on the heart – that has led to such a dramatic diminution in heart suffering. Consider heart bypass surgery, developed in the 1960s, where veins from one part of a person’s body are grafted on to his sick heart in order to ‘bypass’ its narrowed veins. ‘Bypass’ – I love that word, for this intricate surgery, like all human technological endeavour, is really a bypassing of nature and its whims and idiocies.
And yet, last week’s revelation about a generational plummeting in heart-disease death rates in Europe was not greeted as a victory for man over sickness. In fact you’ll be hard-pressed to find any substantial coverage of it. Go to Google News and put in the words heart and disease. You’ll see links to articles from the past few days about how painkillers allegedly cause heart disease; about how post-traumatic stress disorder is leading to an explosion in heart disease; about how being ‘just FOUR POUNDS overweight can increase your risk of heart disease’. It’s only further down that you’ll see a link to a Huffington Post article with the headline ‘Heart Disease Rates Halved Since 1980s’. And no one even reads the Huffington Post.