By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - The number of people dying from heart disease in Europe has dropped dramatically in recent decades, thanks largely to the success of cholesterol-lowering drugs and drives to persuade people to quit smoking, scientists said on Wednesday.
Cardiovascular disease death rates have more than halved in many countries in the European Union since the early 1980s, according to their study in the European Heart Journal.
Yet heart disease - which can lead to fatal heart attacks and strokes - remains a leading cause of death in the region and rising rates of obesity and diabetes could soon start to reverse progress made in the past 30 years.
"For the most part and for most countries this is good news - the death rates have come down quite substantially in the last 30 years," said Nick Townsend of Britain's Oxford University, who worked on the study.
"But what we don't want to say is that the job is done, because we know by looking at trends in other conditions that they could reverse the trends we've worked so hard to achieve in heart disease."
According to the World Health Organization, cardiovascular diseases kill around 17 million people globally each year.
Townsend's team looked at deaths from coronary heart disease between 1980 and 2009 in both sexes and four age groups: under 45, 45 to 54, 55 to 64, and 65 years and over.
They found that almost all EU countries had a large and significant decrease in death rates from heart disease over the last three decades in both men and women when all the age groups were considered together.
Britain, Denmark, Malta, The Netherlands and Sweden had the largest declines in death rates for both sexes, while among men in Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, the decreases were small and not statistically significant. In Romanian men, there was a small but statistically significant increase.
Although the study did not look specifically for causes, Townsend said the progress was probably mainly due to better drugs - such as statins to treat high cholesterol and anti-hypertensives to treat high blood pressure - as well as lower rates of smoking in the region overall.
He warned, however, that other risk factors, such as obesity and diabetes, were a real concern: "It could lead to a future time bomb, whereby these fantastic gains in terms of heart disease mortality could start to reverse with the impact of rises in obesity and diabetes."
Commenting on the study's findings, Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation charity, said while the picture of heart disease mortality is improving "we're an awful long way from back-patting and hand-clapping".
"More than 2 million people are battling coronary heart disease in the UK and while our work in science labs and (in) improving prevention and care has made a huge difference, that's 2 million people too many," he said in a statement.
(Editing by Alison Williams)