Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide but not nearly enough is being done to educate people about how they can lessen their vulnerability, experts said Tuesday.
"Cardiovascular diseases are simply not on the global public health agenda," Janet Voute, the World Heart Federation's CEO, said on the sidelines of the World Congress of Cardiology.
"We need to change people's minds about how serious this is," she added.
In developing countries, younger people, often in their most productive working years, are the worst hit by cardiovascular disease. In wealthier nations, older generations are the most vulnerable.
Compounding the problem: the price of medication to treat cardiovascular diseases may be more than a typical family's monthly income in some developing countries.
In parts of rural China, for example, having a heart attack or a stroke may result in some stark choices.
"Some families have to choose whether they pay for a relative's treatment or for things like food and housing," said Dr. Dong Zhao, director of the Beijing Institute of Heart, Lung and Blood Vessel Diseases.
Experts say the fight against cardiovascular disease — which only became a major health problem in the last century — can be won.
"Cardiovascular disease is entirely a man-made disease," said Dr. Salim Yusuf, professor of cardiology at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada.
He said more attention needs to be placed on diet and exercise.
In developing countries, increasing rates of cardiovascular disease are tied to economic development.
"That is one of the unfortunate costs of transitioning to a more Westernized economy," said Zhao, who said that heart attacks are most prevalent in China's major cities, rather than in the countryside.
Health officials are lobbying the United Nations to have cardiovascular disease added to the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals — which were drafted in 2000 with the aim of halving poverty by 2015.
Three of the goals are already health-related.
In practice, Voute says countries are hampered in trying to raise funds to fight heart disease because funding agencies are, as a result, not obligated to recognize cardiovascular disease as a priority.