Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the US. But a new study finds that hospitalizations and deaths from the condition – as well as from stroke – have declined in the last decade.

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Hospitalization rates for heart attack declined by 38% during the 12-year study period, while risk of death from heart attack within 12 months of visiting the hospital reduced by 23%.

The research team – led by Dr. Harlan Krumholz, director of the Center of Outcomes Research and Evaluation at Yale-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, CT – recently published their findings in the journal Circulation.

To reach their findings, Dr. Krumholz and colleagues analyzed data of almost 34 million people who received Medicare Fee-For-Service (FFS) between 1999 and 2011.

Using this information, the researchers assessed trends in hospitalization rates, death rates within a month of hospital admission, rates of readmission within a month of hospital discharge, and risk of death within 12 months of visiting the hospital.

Results of their analysis revealed that hospitalization rates for heart attack declined by 38% during the 12-year period, while risk of death from heart attack within 12 months of visiting the hospital reduced by 23%.

For unstable angina – restricted blood flow and oxygen that can lead to heart attack – and heart failure, hospitalization rates declined by 83.8% and 30.5%, respectively, while risk of death from the conditions reduced by 21% and 13%.

Hospitalization rates for stroke declined by 33.6% during the study period, while risk of death reduced by 13%.

These results remained after the team accounted for patients’ age, sex, race, geography and other illnesses.

Dr. Krumholz says it is interesting that these declines happened when there was “no real ‘miracle’ clinical advancements,” indicating that they are a result of improvements in other areas.

“Rather, we saw consistent improvements in the use of evidence-based treatments and medications and an increase in quality improvement initiatives using registries and other data to track performance and support improvement efforts – as well as a strong emphasis on heart-healthy lifestyles and behaviors,” says Dr. Krumholz.

He notes that declines in smoking, improvements in diagnosing and treating high blood pressure, an increase in statin use, and more appropriate and timely treatment for heart attack patients may have also contributed to declines in cardiovascular-related hospitalizations and deaths.

Dr. Krumholz adds:

Huge strides in lifestyle, quality of care and prevention strategies for cardiovascular health have seemed to have a ripple effect on saving lives. As a result, our country has undergone remarkable changes, which has reduced suffering and costs.”

Although these findings are promising, Dr. Krumholz stresses that heart disease and stroke are still leading causes of death in the US and require continued focus.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study led by researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, claiming that women and blacks are most affected by risk factors for heart disease.

Another study published in The New England Journal of Medicine suggested that every year, 1 in 10 global cardiovascular deaths are caused by high sodium intake.