Autopsy Studies Find Large And Dramatic Drop In Early Atherosclerosis Over 60 Years 1

Service members who died over the past decade were far less likely to have atherosclerosis than service members who died in Korea or Vietnam, according to a new study published in JAMA. Although it is impossible to fully understand the causes and implications of the finding, the results provide powerful new evidence pointing toward a very long term, enormous reduction in the prevalence of coronary disease, especially in younger people, though an aging population and disturbing trends in obesity and diabetes mean that cardiovascular disease will continue to be a major public health problem for the foreseeable future.

Micrograph of an artery that supplies the hear...

Bryant Webber and colleagues analyzed autopsy reports and available health data from 3,832 service members who died of combat or unintentional injuries in Afghanistan and Iraq and compared their findings to similar studies performed during the Korean and Vietnam wars. 8.5% of the newest group had evidence of coronary atherosclerosis, compared with 77% in the Korean War group and 45% in the Vietnam War group. The authors acknowledge that there are many reasons why the groups should not be directly compared but conclude that the overall trend   in the reduced prevalence of atherosclerosis is undoubtedly true.

As might be expected, service members with atherosclerosis were older and more likely to have dyslipidemia, hypertension, or obesity than service members without atherosclerosis. Surprisingly, cigarette smoking was not significantly associated with atherosclerosis in this study.

In an accompanying editorial, the Framingham Study’s Daniel Levy writes that “the main finding of this study is valid: the prevalence of atherosclerosis in young men today is much lower than the prevalence in the Korean or Vietnam War eras. If these findings are generalizable to the US population as a whole, then the cardiovascular health of the US population may have improved appreciably over the past 6 decades.”

Levy writes that the concurrent decline in mortality from cardiovascular disease is likely the result of advances in both prevention and treatment, but only advances in primary prevention can explain the trend found in the autopsy studies. Nevertheless, he notes, cardiovascular disease is still the leading cause of death in the US: “The national battle against heart disease is not over; increasing rates of obesity and diabetes signal a need to engage earlier and with greater intensity in a campaign of preemption and prevention.”
Click here to read the JAMA press release…

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