Deaths from heart disease in Spokane County have continued to plummet in the past 10 years.
Cancer is now the leading killer, according to statistics collected by the Spokane Regional Health District.
The drop in heart disease deaths mirrors a trend across the United States.
In the year 2000, heart disease was responsible for 26.4 percent of deaths – more than one in four – in Spokane County. A decade later heart disease is blamed for causing 19.8 percent of all deaths. That’s fewer than one in five.
The declines are attributable in large part to better drugs.
Patients can live longer by taking medicines that lower cholesterol and treat high blood pressure.
And there are fewer smokers.
“It’s a combination of a lot of things,” said Cindy Green, program manager in the Spokane Regional Health District’s health promotion division. “Better medicines and diagnostics, lower risk factors and advancements in treatments.”
A study published five years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that the death rate associated with heart disease fell by about half among men and women during the 20 years between 1980 and 2000. Those declines, too, were attributable to better drugs.
But health officials are not ready to celebrate.
“What you see with heart disease, though, does not mean that everyone is getting healthier,” Green said.
Spokane cardiology clinics say they are busy with patients, but that the mortality rates are falling because of more effective treatments and earlier diagnoses.
Other leading killers in Spokane include unintentional injuries, chronic lower respiratory disease, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, diabetes, chronic liver disease, suicide, Parkinson’s disease and pneumonia.
As heart disease death rates drop, there has been a slight rise in deaths attributable to diabetes.
The number of Americans with diabetes has risen sharply, tracking with the obesity epidemic that is becoming one of the nation’s most urgent public health crises.
As is the case with many health problems, poverty and education levels are factors when it comes to heart disease, both in Spokane County and across the country.
“Our challenge is that particularly among low-income, disadvantaged and racial minorities, there is a higher percentage with heart disease,” Green said.
Across the country, 6 percent of adults had heart disease in 2010, down from 6.7 percent in 2006, according to a Centers for Disease Control report issued last fall.
The largest drops were among whites and Hispanics. The rates among blacks rose slightly.
Heart disease is also more prevalent – 9.2 percent – among people without a high school education. The more education, the lower the rate, the CDC study showed.
Another cause for concern is the soaring cost of treating people with heart disease. A study published last year by the American Heart Association predicts that costs of treating heart disease could triple by the year 2030 – reaching $818 billion. The rise is tied to what will be greater numbers of older Americans living longer but not necessarily in good health.
Heart disease now accounts for about 17 percent of the nation’s expenditures on health care.
The heart association said the adoption of cost-effective strategies to stop heart disease can save money. Those include further efforts to get more people to stop smoking, exercise and eat healthier diets, manage obesity, and get screened for diabetes.
Combined with public policies and medications, heart disease rates can be lowered and death rates further lowered, the heart association said.