A lost decade of progress tackling heart disease will worsen existing health inequalities
Dr Tom Speight
- Health inequalities
We have lost a decade of progress in heart care
We are now more likely to die early from heart disease than we were 10 years ago. Recent analysis by the British Heart Foundation shows the rate of people dying from heart and circulatory diseases before the age of 75 in England has reached its highest level for more than a decade. In 2022 alone, an average of 750 people died each week from conditions including heart attacks, coronary heart disease and stroke before reaching their 75th birthday.
For almost 60 years, we’d seen a sustained fall in premature deaths from heart disease. But from 2012, we began to see this trend flatten. What’s more concerning is the premature death rate for heart disease has risen every year since 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly played a role in this, both in terms of direct effects on people’s health and disruption to health services. However, we don’t yet know for certain the full picture for what’s driving this rise in early heart disease deaths.
What we do know is that this reversal was largely avoidable. Why? Because most cardiovascular conditions themselves are preventable and treatable. With enough political willpower to take bold action, we can put a stop to so many families losing a loved one too soon.
We risk widening the health gap between rich and poor even further
We know there is an inextricable link between heart disease and the health inequalities experienced across the UK. Since 2010, the health gap between rich and poor has significantly widened. People in the most deprived parts of England have been getting sicker, with stalling improvement in healthy life expectancy.
Cardiovascular disease is a major contributor to the life expectancy gap between the most and least deprived communities in England, with people living in the most deprived areas being four times as likely to die prematurely from cardiovascular disease compared to those living in the least deprived areas.
This means any lost progress in heart care will inevitably be felt more acutely by those already at a disadvantage. Put simply, if we want to tackle health inequalities, we have to prioritise heart care.
Our hearts need and deserve more
We can’t let this continue. Too many people are dying early from cardiovascular diseases. But with urgent and long-overdue intervention, we can regain this lost progress and save lives.
We see politicians from all sides recognising the challenge to tackle this heart care emergency. The UK Government’s interim report for their Major Conditions Strategy was explicit in highlighting the urgency needed to tackle the rising tide of cardiovascular disease and health inequalities in the UK. Meanwhile, the Labour party pledged to reduce deaths from heart attack and stroke by 25 per cent and halve the gap in healthy life expectancy between different regions of England within 10 years, if they are elected to Government.
But the crisis in heart care is happening now. Immediate action is needed to start making a difference. We believe a three-pronged approach can stop this crisis in its tracks:
- Better prevent the causes of heart disease, focussing on major drivers of health inequalities such as obesity and smoking.
- Make NHS heart care a priority, with dedicated plans for heart disease that effectively plan for and fund a specialist cardiac workforce.
- Supercharge cardiovascular research that is diverse and representative, to unlock groundbreaking treatments and cures to be delivered equitably.
Now, more than ever before, our hearts need protection. With an upcoming general election, there’s never been a better time for politicians to show that improving the health of the nation’s hearts is a top priority and set us on a long-overdue path to finally shrinking the health gap between richest and poorest.
Dr Tom Speight is a Senior Policy Officer at the British Heart Foundation. To support the BHF’s vision of a world free from the fear of heart and circulatory diseases, Tom’s work focuses on highlighting heart and circulatory disease inequalities to drive and influence change. You can reach Tom here.