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Their hearts won’t go on—but most Americans don’t know it


Survey reveals majority not aware that heart disease is leading cause of death

Image of inflamed heart ©


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More than half of Americans don’t know that heart disease is the nation’s number one killer, a new survey finds.

The November 2023 survey conducted by the American Heart Association (AHA) found that 51% of respondents couldn’t identify heart disease as the nation’s leading cause of death, a status it has held for more than a century.

 “Heart disease has been the leading cause of death in this country for 100 years straight, since 1921,” Joseph C. Wu, M.D., Ph.D., FAHA, volunteer president of the American Heart Association and director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute and the Simon H. Stertzer Professor of Medicine and Radiology at Stanford School of Medicine said in a news release.

Wu added that together heart disease and stroke, the nation’s fifth-leading cause of death, account for more deaths than all forms of cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease. “So…finding that most people do not know the significant impact of heart disease is discouraging and even a bit frightening,” he said.
Data on the history and current status of heart disease in the U.S. is updated annually and included in 2024 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics: A Report of U.S. and Global Data From the American Heart Association, published January 23 in the AHA’s journal Circulation.

According to the report, over the past 10 years the age-adjusted death rate from high blood pressure increased by nearly two-thirds (65.6%), while the actual number of deaths grew by 91.2%.

Wu noted that the report also contains hopeful long-term findings, including:

  • The number of Americans dying of a heart attack annually has dropped from 1 in 2 iin 1950 to now 1 in 8.5
  • Stroke, which had been the third-leading cause of death in 1938, now ranks fifth
  • The percentage of adult smokers has dropped from more than 40% in the mid-1960s to about 11% today

Seth S. Martin, M.D., M.H.S., FAHA, a professor of medicine and cardiologist at John’s Hopkins School of Medicine and chair of the statistical update committee said, “As it has evolved over the years, the report has become a preeminent resource in identifying the overall impact of cardiovascular disease, including who is most affected, where it is most prevalent and what factors may increase the risk of it. This type of information is crucial to the development of awareness initiatives and policy strategies and provides a road map for cardiovascular research priorities.”

Last year’s update saw the largest single-year increase in cardiovascular-related deaths (CVDs) since 2015, which Martin said may reflect the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while CVDs were up again in the 2024 report, the increase was smaller than last year’s.

“While the long-term impact of the pandemic is yet to be seen, we’re cautiously optimistic that the trends from this year’s update indicate a slowdown in the striking effects we initially saw,” Martin said. “Recognizing that most people do not realize heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., it’s imperative that we share the data from our statistics update even more broadly to increase this awareness.”

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