Major Shift As Deaths From Cancer Overtake CV Disease In Western Europe

–In 12 high-income countries cancer is now a bigger cause of death than cardiovascular disease.

In Europe as in the rest of the world cardiovascular (CV) disease remains the number one cause of death. But in 12 western European countries cancer now kills more people than CV disease. The finding, which likely presages a major shift in disease burden in high income countries, is among the highlights of the latest European epidemiology findings published in the European Heart Journal.

“The displacement of CV disease as number 1 is due to substantial reductions in both the incidence and case fatality rates from CV disease in several high-income countries and is a testament of much more we know about CV disease prevention and treatment and the impact of high quality research and their findings being translated into practice (even if partial), said Salim Yusuf (McMaster University), who was not involved with this research.

“What a privilege to be a cardiologist during a period in which we have demonstrated such remarkable progress against cardiovascular disease,” said Harlan Krumholz (Yale University). “We should be glad to cede the top spot and work even hard to decrease the burden of cardiovascular disease much further. Success will be when these conditions are considered rare and even notable. It will continue to take efforts on behaviors, environments, health care, stress – and the science of atherosclerosis itself. Meanwhile, the disparities show that progress is not uniform and that we need to particularly help others to find the strategies that can mitigate the burden of CV disease where it remains the leading threat.”

Overall, the new paper reports, 4 million people each year die from CV disease in Europe, representing 45% of all deaths. 1.8 million people die from coronary heart disease and 1 million from cerebrovascular disease. Most CV deaths occur in elderly patients, but 1.4 million occur in people under the age of 75 and 700,00 in people under 65.

There was a wide variation in the rate of CV disease in different European countries. In men, for instance, the death rate per 100,000 people (adjusted for age) ranged from 275 in France, 480 in Finland, 1299 in Bulgaria, to 1,544 in the Ukraine. In most countries the death rate has “experienced substantial declines” since 2003. It should be noted, however, that epidemiologists now anticipate that some of these declines will likely be slowed or even reversed as a result of the rise in obesity and diabetes.

In 12 countries deaths from cancer now outnumber deaths from CV disease. This trend began in 1998 with France, and has now spread to Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, the UK, Norway and Israel.

“These figures highlight the wide inequalities between European countries in deaths from CV disease,” said the first author of the paper, Nick Townsend (University of Oxford), in a press release. “The highest numbers of deaths from CV disease tend to be seen in Eastern European countries.”

“Although we have seen progress across Europe in the prevention and treatment of CV disease, leading to decreases in mortality from it, it is clear that such progress is not consistent across the continent. With higher mortality from CV disease still found in Eastern Europe and non-EU countries, it is clear that the progress that has been made in Western Europe and most EU countries is yet to be achieved equally throughout the region,” said Townsend.

In his comments on the report Yusuf said the the “findings are consistent with Canadian data as well as data from several high income countries in our PURE study. However, CV disease is still the number one cause of premature deaths in most middle-income and low-income countries with much lower rates of cancer deaths.”

Yusuf anticipated how these trends will likely play out in the future:

“In the next few decades, I expect age adjusted CV disease mortality to decline in many more countries with further declines in several countries which have already experienced a decline such as the UK, Canada or the US. We will see a decline in tobacco-related cancers in men in most high income countries as tobacco use declines, with the same pattern in women a decade or two later.

“In low- and middle-income countries, we may see an increase in cancers over the next few decades as tobacco use is not declining at the same rate in several countries, and the effects of the last two decades of tobacco use have their full impact. While control of CV disease is challenging and not inexpensive, the control of cancer deaths will be even more challenging and their treatments will be more expensive that treatment of CV disease. In the future the costs of treating cancer will be a major concern.

“We will be witnessing many different transitions and the shift in ranking on what leads to the greatest disease burden will be seen worldwide in the next few decades.”


  1. Is there any good reason to believe that the reduced incidence of CVD is anything to do with the medical profession? The graphs look like those of an infectious disease, growing and then declining at its own sweet speed.

    My own conjecture is that if medics have anything to do with the decline it’s been by virtue of their over-prescription of antibiotics: if so, it may not have been overprescription at all.

    The other possible effect is that medics have delayed and attenuated the decline by virtue of the rotten dietary advice they’ve propagandised for years, thought it may be that the pernicious effect of that shows up in diabetes rates rather than CVD rates.

  2. I should add that I assume that the medic-driven decline in smoking cigarettes has been beneficial; if so, it’s one of the few triumphs of epidemiology since Snow and cholera.

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