Heart diseases and strokes kill 17 million people every year - more than any other cause - and are increasingly likely to afflict people in poor countries, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) said today as it published an atlas mapping the scale of the global epidemics.
The Atlas of Heart Disease and Stroke, released to coincide with World Heart Day this Sunday, shows that the two diseases are also becoming more deadly, with a projected combined death toll of 24 million by 2030.
WHO officials said the world therefore needs to do more to tackle diseases that are both preventable and capable of striking a much wider demographic than popularly understood.
WHO's Director of Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion, Dr. Robert Beaglehole, said "the old stereotype of cardiovascular diseases affecting only stressed, overweight, middle-aged men in developed countries no longer applies.
"Today, men, women and children are at risk and 80 per cent of the burden is in low- and middle-income countries," he said.
While some inhabitants of these nations are acquiring the lifestyle habits of their counterparts in industrialized States, such as little exercise and fatty diets, they do not have access to comparable medical treatment.
For these countries, the high death rates are also a major national economic burden, soaking up health-care costs and depriving families of income-earners.
Heart diseases and strokes already account for nearly a third of the 57 million deaths worldwide every year, outstripping violence, cancer, respiratory diseases and HIV/AIDS to be clearly the biggest cause.
One of the co-authors of the atlas, Dr. Judith Mackay, said that even if there are major breakthroughs in medical research, "any major reduction in deaths and disability from heart disease and stroke will come primarily from prevention, not just cure."
With children and adolescents the focus of this year's World Heart Day, WHO said they should be encouraged to lead a healthy lifestyle - especially diet and exercise - as early as possible, well before they can develop any serious problems.
The atlas contains detailed maps explaining the data on heart disease and stroke for every country, as well as such measures as the number of "healthy life years" lost to the two conditions and the prevalence of smoking. The nations' health policies and laws are also explained.