updated 4/23/2004 5:53:42 PM ET 2004-04-23T21:53:42

Heart disease is a huge but largely overlooked problem for global health, striking working-age people in developing countries and hampering their economies, a new report concludes.

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Low- and middle-income countries suffer about 80 percent of the world’s 17 million deaths every year from heart disease, including stroke, researchers found.

“This is a common problem in developing countries,” said study lead author Stephen Leeder, a visiting research fellow at the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

What’s more, he said, while the United States and other developed countries have largely pushed the death rate from such diseases past age 70 through prevention and medical care, the problem is far more common in working-age people elsewhere.

In the age group of 30 to 59, for example, the rate of men dying from heart disease in Russia is about five times that of the United States; in India, it’s nearly double; and in South Africa and Brazil, markedly higher, the report says.

Economies affected
India alone is losing a million people a year from its potential active work force, Leeder said.

“These are people who would otherwise be adding to the economy. They’re people who would be looking after their families,” Leeder said Friday, noting that widowhood is “a fast track to poverty” in developing countries.

The report is sponsored by Columbia’s Earth Institute and its school of public health, the University of Sydney in Australia and the Initiative for Cardiovascular Health Research in The Developing Countries. It is scheduled to be released on Monday but was available Friday on the university institute’s Web site.

In a foreword, Derek Yach, a representative of the World Health Organization’s director-general, said the report “will start to dispel many myths that hamper progress in CVD (heart disease) and other chronic diseases.”

To combat the problem, Leeder said, developing countries must recognize heart disease as an economic as well as a health issue. They should take steps like taxing cigarettes and banning tobacco ads.

More education needed
Residents should be educated about the risk of heart disease and about getting exercise and trimming their diets, he said. And governments should do all they can to make sure inexpensive drugs to treat high blood pressure and high cholesterol are provided to their citizens, Leeder said.

The report notes that the problem of heart disease in low- and middle-income countries hasn’t gotten more attention in part because it has “few of the features that attract international sympathy or support.” It rarely kills children, the researchers wrote, while adults with the disease “do not provide heart-rending photo opportunities.”

It is “commonly seen as an affliction of affluence occurring in late middle and old age, a regrettable but inevitable feature of growing old ...”

That view persists despite the fact that millions of people, especially the poor, die from cardiovascular disease in their 40s and 50s, the report says, “... and it is the poor, not the rich, who are generally most at risk.”

The research takes a close look at populations in Russia, Brazil, India, China and South Africa, and calculates the number of productive years lost to heart disease as an indicator of economic cost. In total, the loss is about 21 million productive years annually, and it will climb to about 34 million by 2030 unless communities and their governments take action, the report said.

Leeder said those estimates are conservative.

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