Are Rates of Disease Rising? Heart Disease

This will be a series of posts–all on different diseases!


One of the paradoxes that I perceive in nutrition is a seemingly rising rate of disease along with a rise in nutritional awareness. I believe rates of many diseases are going up, but more importantly, I believe most of the diseases we face today hardly existed at the turn of the 20th century. My purpose with this blog is, in part, to look at what science says, but more importantly, to take a logical and rational approach when dealing with nutrition topics. I have radically alternate views when it comes to nutrition, and though I can back them up with a lot of science (science that is rather unknown), I believe that science can be made to say anything, and that what is really needed is good, sound reason.

About Statistics

Talking about rising rates of disease from a scientific perspective is a frustrating topic. There is a large amount of data and statistics to shovel through, and an even larger amount of confounding factors. For instance, there often exists conflicting sets of statistics; on top of that, statistics can be interpreted incorrectly or could be themselves incorrect, if they were not gathered correctly. Statistics also do not reflect the effect of outside variables. Not to mention the fact that statistics are often absent for some parts of history.

In the nutritional world, things become even more confounded. An apparent rise in, let’s say, heart disease–statistically or perceptionally–could be due to an actual rise in heart disease, or it could be due to simply a rise of diagnoses of heart disease. This latter part, in turn, could be due to advances in technology that allow easier detection of the disease, to more people visiting their doctor to be tested, to disease mongering, to media coverage, changes in classification/definition of the disease, etc.

My view though is that diseases, as a whole, are increasing in number. So let’s take a look at major diseases one-by-one.

Heart Disease

Heart disease is a very vague term; heart attacks are much more concrete. And since heart attacks are the product and main concern of heart disease, I will focus on data for them. However, the statistics for something as concrete and detectable as a heart attack are all over the place. This source, this source, this source, this source, and this source, all have different numbers for the number of heart attacks that occur each year in the US (the second and fourth sources coincide). What’s more, the first source appears to disagree with itself. Examine the two following quotes taken from that page: “Each year, as many as 770,000 people in the U.S. will have a coronary attack (includes heart attack and fatal coronary disease).” “Each year, approximately 555,000 men and 365,000 women suffer heart attacks.” “As many as” 770,000 people in the first quote, and a total of 920,000 in the second (both US data). Hmmmm.

Let’s move away from statistics and into reality. Heart disease is just that, a disease. And the idea of disease implies its opposite: healthiness. This blog rests on the assumption that disease is not a natural state for humans, which most people would agree with (I assume). So if healthiness is a natural state, then the current large amount of heart disease and heart attacks insinuates a time when there wasn’t heart disease (or have we always been disease-ridden?).

Indeed, there was such a time. In the first half of the 20th century, heart disease and heart attacks were rare, and around the 1920’s, they were virtually unheard of, according to Dr. Paul Dudley White, MD, a doctor that did some doctoring back then (one of among many sources). This same doctor is also the guy who brought the electrocardiogram, a device to detect arterial blockages and thus diagnose heart disease early, to the United States. Heart disease was so rare at the time that his colleagues at Harvard advised him to look into a more profitable branch of medicine (source).

The argument that immediately pops up to rebut this is that people did not live long enough to get heart disease back then. Along with implying that heart disease and old-age go hand-in-hand, there is another problem with that argument. Let’s move back into statistics. According to the American Heart Association here, 14.2% of men and 9.7% of women age 20-39 (dated 2005-2008) have cardiovascular disease. And according to the government here, the life expectancy at birth in 1900 was around 50 years of age (and if you exclude data for infant mortality, life expectancy for that period is significantly increased). As can be seen, people of Dr. White’s day lived more than long enough by today’s standards to develop heart disease. And yet they didn’t.

That last AHA source, as well as this one, show that in the last decade or so deaths from heart disease have declined; but they also show a steady increase in the number of hospital discharges for heart disease. So as awareness for heart health rises, more people than before are checking into the hospital. But if this be the case, if in the past people were not checking into the hospital when they had chest pains, where did those statistics for heart disease come from? This is more likely: advances in health care technology allow for people to live longer with heart disease while the rate of the disease continues to rise.

I will state though that it is very possible that rates of heart disease are slowly dropping, and let’s hope this is the case! We are, either way, a long ways away from the heart-disease-free era of yesteryear, and other diseases or conditions are, for certain, on the rise, especially obesity, diabetes, and depression, all of which I will cover in later posts.

To be continued….

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

Photo courtesy of Fred Siebert

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