WASHINGTON — Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, but heart attack-related deaths are decreasing. A new study, analyzing 20 years of data, finds a four-percent drop in people dying from heart attacks. The data also suggests racial disparities in heart attack deaths among White and Black people are shrinking.
“It’s good news,” says Muchi Ditah Chobufo, MD, a cardiology fellow at West Virginia University and the study’s lead author, in a media release. “Researchers often highlight the bad news, but people should know that even if we’re not there yet, we’re making progress in the right direction. I think the reasons are multifactorial, spanning all the way from health-promoting and prevention activities through treatment during and after a heart attack.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) records how many people die from heart attacks every year. The researchers analyzed the data from 1999 to 2020 across all racial groups. Over the two decades, the overall death rate went from 87 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 to 38 deaths per 100,000 people in 2020.
Black Americans have consistently made up a good percentage of heart attack-related deaths compared to Caucasian Americans, but it seems this gap is closing. Black Americans experienced an average of 104 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999. By 2020, the mortality rate fell to 46 deaths per 100,000 people.
It’s unknown whether the decline in heart attack deaths is because there are fewer heart attacks happening or if it’s the success of recent diagnostic and treatment strategies keeping people in better health. When hospitals suspect a potential heart attack, for example, they often test a protein called troponin that’s involved in muscle contraction of the heart. Increases in troponin levels in the blood tell doctors that there’s damage to the heart. This diagnostic test has helped in detecting heart attacks at earlier stages and intervening sooner.
There’s also been a greater push for living a heart-healthy lifestyle. The general public has become more aware of the health hazards of smoking and high cholesterol levels. Compared to the 1990s, hospitals now have mechanical support devices and medications like potent antiplatelets to prevent a patient from experiencing a second heart attack.
The researchers found other interesting trends in the 20-year data. The racial disparities in heart attack rates have narrowed over the years. The difference in heart attack-related deaths between Black and White individuals was 17 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 and eight deaths per 100,000 people in 2020.
“That’s a big closure of the gap,” Chobufo adds. “I didn’t think the disparities were going to drop this far this fast.”
There was one exception to the general data patterns researchers noticed. In 2020, there was a slight uptick in heart attack-related deaths. The team attributed the increase to the COVID-19 pandemic, but further research is necessary to confirm this theory.
“For everyone involved in providing the best care to these patients, they should know that they’ve been doing a great job,” Chobufo says. “But that doesn’t mean we can stop. Even one death is one too many, and even a disparity of one is a disparity of one too many. We can push even further and try to eliminate those gaps.”
According to the CDC, about 800,000 people in the U.S. experience a heart attack annually. A heart attack can feel like you’re having shortness of breath, feeling faint, and pain or discomfort in the chest, jaw, neck, back, arm, or shoulder. A heart attack is a medical emergency. If you suspect a possible heart attack, call 911 and get yourself to an emergency room ASAP.
Researchers presented their findings at the American College of Cardiology’s Annual Scientific Session Together With the World Congress of Cardiology.