Belfast Telegraph

3,000 fewer are dying from heart disease every year... but suicide rose to one of its worst-ever levels in 2013

Coronary deaths tumble sharply in three decades

By Victoria O'Hara

Significantly fewer people in Northern Ireland are dying from heart disease, new figures have revealed.

A combination of a healthier diet, more exercise and medical advances have been heralded as the key reasons behind almost 3,000 fewer people dying from heart disease every year compared to 30 years ago.

A leading charity said it was "tremendous evidence" that people in the province were getting healthier, but called for work to further reduce risk factors.

The figures were revealed by the NI Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), which said the long-term fall in deaths due to heart disease is resulting in an ageing population.

Last year 1,900 people died from ischaemic heart disease – or 13% of deaths – but three decades ago 4,800 people died from this disease every year.

Overall there were 15,000 deaths registered in Northern Ireland last year.

Analysis of the statistics shows:

  • As the number of older people increases, deaths in the older population also continue to rise.
  • Last year over 5,000 deaths, or one in three, were of people aged 85 or more.
  • Last year 4,200 people died from cancer, or 28% of all deaths. In contrast, 3,000 people a year died from cancer in the 1980s.

Dr David Marshall from NISRA said the number of deaths increased last year, although the current death rate was significantly less than 30 years ago.

"The extent of cancer mortality continues to grow, and in an ageing population we are seeing more deaths of the elderly caused by Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia," he said.

Andrew Dougal, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke Association welcomed the fall in heart disease-related deaths.

"In 1984 we launched a campaign to prevent heart disease in Northern Ireland. One of the issues was that many of the medical folk and people in Government didn't believe that there was a link between diet and heart disease and we had an uphill struggle to get that point accepted," he said.

"It was 30 years ago in 1984 that people were questioning us, some people thought we ought to be locked up and were talking nonsense. We won through and now everybody now accepts that diet is a major culprit in heart disease."

Mr Dougal said the introduction of the smoking ban in pubs was also a major factor in improving health. "I think the message is getting through. The greatest decline has been in the number of people under 75 dying from coronary heart disease – a huge reduction of 71%."

However, Mr Dougal said heart disease remained one of the main killers in Northern Ireland and more work needed to be done.

A spokeswoman for the Public Health Agency said: "There have been significant improvements in the management of heart disease, including the introduction of statins and the more effective treatment of acute heart attacks.

"However, we cannot become complacent – heart disease is still a major cause of death in Northern Ireland, accounting for 13% of deaths in 2013."

A seismic change in attitudes has helped us to live longer

We were once defined as a region who loved a decent Ulster fry, a pint of beer and a smoke. Indulging in them too much, however, can have fatal consequences.

High levels of fat, alcohol and nicotine can all contribute to a long list of illnesses — including heart disease.

And while there is no doubt there are thousands of people who still tuck into a fry, enjoy a pint and smoke cigarettes, the latest figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency show a remarkable turnaround in the number of people who die from heart disease.

Thirty years ago, diseased hearts claimed the lives of 4,800 people annually in Northern Ireland. This has now dropped to 1,900 a year.

Which means that since 1983, 2,900 extra people are alive each year, thanks in part to a seismic shift in our attitudes to junk food, exercise and cigarettes.

Lobbying by charities such as the Chest, Heart and Stroke Association, together with improved medical technology, have also helped.

Another step forward came in 2007 with the introduction of the smoking ban that stopped people from lighting up in public places.

Smoking is said to cause 3,000 deaths in Northern Ireland each year, with one death every fortnight due to second-hand smoke.

It also increases the risk of more than 50 serious health conditions.

But health promotion campaigns by charities and Government agencies have also been successful in reducing the risk factors.

Exercise means a healthier heart because it reduces several cardiovascular risks, including high blood pressure and heart disease.

Dietitian and nutritionist Gillian Killiner said she believed a combination of a better diet, education and modern treatment had lowered deaths linked to heart disease.

“The heart disease issue is an interesting one,” she said. “I think people are being treated more with statins. And there is a subset of the population who have the title the ‘worried well’ — meaning they look after themselves and work really hard to keep their cholestrol low and maintain health and fitness.

“There are more people than ever doing exercise and that has an impact on cardiovascular health, and I think in Northern Ireland that has seen a marked improvement.”

Ms Killiner added: “In terms of diet, I think we have got a lot more cultural food choices, which may have helped break that saturated fat cycle.

“But I’m not convinced it is a dietary issue only. I think it is medication and early detection and treatment as well. People are still getting fatter and being unhealthy and eating a lot more processed food, which isn’t ideal.

“Many people are still suffering from obesity, so I do think there are still a few hurdles to overcome.”

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