updated 4/5/2006 6:58:09 PM ET 2006-04-05T22:58:09

Each year cardiovascular disease kills 13 million people in developing countries, almost triple the number who die from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, researchers said Wednesday.

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Cardiovascular disease — including heart disease, heart failure and stroke — is the world’s biggest killer, and it often strikes people in their prime working years of 35 to 64, experts said during a four-day health conference.

In China, deaths from cardiovascular disease have skyrocketed alongside the country’s rapid economic development, making it the No. 1 killer — fueled by smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, said Dr. Runlin Gao, a cardiologist at Fu Wai Hospital.

“The total disease burden of cardiovascular disease in China is higher than in the United States and most other Western countries,” he said. “Cardiovascular disease has been the leading cause of deaths in China since the 1990s.”

Changes in diet and lifestyle
In many developing countries, growing prosperity has led to vast changes in diet and lifestyle. Easy access to cheap, fatty foods along with migration from rural farming areas into cities has altered the way many people live.

The conference launched the Disease Control Priorities Project, which includes three books compiled by nearly 500 international experts focusing on cost-effective strategies for improving global health.

Heart attacksSenior editor Dean Jamison, a health economics professor at the University of California, San Francisco, said taxing tobacco and reducing trans fat in foods, as the Dutch have done, are effective government interventions to help lower cardiovascular disease risk factors.

“You don’t have to change people’s hearts and minds, you change behavior through changing prices people face or changing specific aspects of their environment like putting in speed bumps or simply taking things off the shelves. They don’t have any choice,” he said.

But he said persuading people to make lifestyle changes can be much more difficult — especially with fast, processed foods available globally.

“It’s right there at your fingertips, anytime you want it,” Jamison said. “We have our genes being given this feast. How do you stop that?”

Creating areas in cities where people can exercise or adding bicycle lanes are simple ways to promote healthier living along with ensuring that children are served healthy meals in schools, he said.

Using drugs to lower cholesterol and high blood pressure are cost-effective ways to help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, while aspirin and beta-blockers can help prevent costly heart bypass surgeries, the researchers reported.

While the number of male smokers has dropped in China from 61 percent to 54 percent over the past two decades, Gao said cigarette-smoking continues to rank as the country’s highest contributor to cardiovascular disease.

Taxing cigarettes 70 percent globally could save 46 million to 114 million smoking-related deaths over the next 50 years, the researchers said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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