Heart disease fight not won yet
The battle to tackle what used to be Northern Ireland's biggest killer, heart disease, has certainly produced startling results. Thirty years ago almost 4,800 people died from cardiac conditions annually, but that figure has now been reduced to 1,900. Campaigns by charities to educate people about the importance of taking more exercise and changing their diet were important factors in the reduction alongside new and improved therapies for those with heart disease.
Since heart disease claimed a significant number of relatively young people, the reduction in the number of deaths from it means that people are living much longer – one-third of all deaths here last year were of people aged 85 and over. But then other diseases have increased, notably cancer, which has seen a rise in the annual death toll of 1,200 people in the last three decades. That is in spite of huge sums of money being spent on research and the development of new therapies and drugs. Northern Ireland now has hugely improved cancer treatments producing improved outcomes, yet the death toll is inexorably upwards, demonstrating the pervasive nature of a disease that can take many forms.
The most worrying statistic to emerge from the examination of mortality figures is the number of deaths from suicide, which last year topped 300, the second highest figure on record.
While many pressure groups say the lack of investment in mental health is one factor, the causes of suicide are multi-faceted and involve personal relationships and societal attitudes. In many instances mental health issues are not factors in the deaths.
These health statistics are important as they demonstrate what approaches work well in improving outcomes and where resources still need to be concentrated.
It may seem that we are winning the battle against heart disease, yet it is still a major killer and the investment in education and treatment is still vital. Early diagnosis also plays a major role in improving outcomes in cancer treatment and many people are still leaving their concerns too late.
However, cancer is largely a disease of old age and as the population ages it is perhaps inevitable that the number of deaths from it will remain high.