June 9 (Bloomberg) -- Lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels helped cut the risk of having a heart attack in the U.K. by 74 percent over two decades, though rising obesity rates may undermine that progress, researchers said.
A decline in smoking rates also contributed to the lower risk, according to a study of almost 10,000 civil servants. The findings of the researchers from University College London Medical School were published today in the European Heart Journal.
The reduction in heart attacks would have been even greater if the study participants hadn’t also gotten fatter, the researchers found. Between 1985 and 2004, a measure of obesity known as the body mass index rose steadily, and higher obesity rates might have led to an increase in heart attacks if not for the changes in cholesterol, blood pressure and smoking, according to the study.
“Continued increases in BMI may reduce further, and even reverse, the decline in the incidence of heart attacks in the future,” said Sarah Hardoon, a senior research associate at UCL who led the study, in a statement. “The rising BMI in the U.K. and in other countries needs urgent attention.”
Heart disease remains the world’s biggest killer, causing 17.1 million deaths in 2004, the World Health Organization estimates. Behaviors such as lack of exercise, poor diet and smoking account for 80 percent of cardiovascular disease, according to the Geneva-based WHO.
Worldwide obesity rates have more than doubled since 1980, and about 1.5 billion people were overweight in 2008, according to the WHO. About 23 percent of the heart disease burden is because of obesity, the WHO said.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance both made by the body and found in some foods. Too much cholesterol in the blood can cause plaque to build up in arteries, blocking the blood supply to the heart and leading to a heart attack.
The greatest single impact on the decline in heart attacks came from lower levels of so-called bad cholesterol, the U.K. study found. That may reflect greater use of a class of cholesterol-lowering medicines as well as changes in diet, the researchers said.
Levels of so-called good cholesterol, which removes bad cholesterol from the blood stream, rose among participants in the U.K. study, further helping to prevent heart attacks.
Cholesterol levels, blood pressure, smoking and diet accounted for more than half of the 74 percent decline, and more research is needed to determine the other factors at work, the researchers said.
The researchers looked at data from more than 9,450 men and women participating in the Whitehall II study, so called because those recruited worked at U.K. government offices in and around Whitehall in London. The study was funded by grants from organizations including the U.K. Medical Research Council, the British Heart Foundation and the U.K. Department of Health.
--Editors: Phil Serafino, David Risser
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