OXFORD, England, Aug. 15 (UPI) -- Cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in most of the world, but new research shows cancer has overtaken it as the greatest killer in 12 European countries -- suggesting efforts at improving treatment and prevention are working.
Researchers found cancer passed CVD as a cause of death and disability in much of Western Europe during the last few years, noting in a study published in the European Heart Journal that much work remains to improve the situation in the rest of the European region.
Cancer was found to be a greater cause of death than CVD in 10 countries that are members of the European Union -- Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and the United Kingdom -- as well as two not in the EU, Norway and Israel.
Nearly one-third of deaths around the world in 2012, about 17.5 million people, were caused by cardiovascular disease, or CVD, which includes a range of conditions involving problems with the heart of blood vessels, according to the World Heath Organization.
Rates of death due to CVD in the United States are similar to those found around the world, with a 2015 study finding the disease claims about 1 of every 3 American lives.
Researchers involved with the new study express surprise at the variation between European nations, especially the divide between mostly eastern and western Europe, saying more needs to be done to understand changes to the death statistics.
"We need more research into why some countries are showing improved outcomes, while others are not," Dr. Nick Townsend, a senior researcher at the Center on Population Approaches for Non-Communicable Disease Prevention at the University of Oxford, said in a press release. "Improved data need to be collected in all countries in order to make comparisons on deaths and suffering from CVD between countries so that health professionals and national governments can target interventions more effectively to reduce inequalities."
Using data from the recently revised European Standard Population, researchers at Oxford found four million deaths in Europe, or 45 percent of all deaths on the continent, are linked to CVD while cancer accounts for less than half that rate.
According to the most recent data available for each country, cancer has overtaken CVD most notably in France, where in 2011 92,375 men died of cancer and 64,659 died of CVD; in Spain, where in 2013 67,711 men died of cancer and 53,487 died of CVD; and in the United Kingdom, where in 2013 87,511 men died of cancer while 79,935 of CVD.
"Although we have seen progress across Europe in the prevention and treatment of CVD, leading to decreases in mortality from it, it is clear that such progress is not consistent across the continent," Townsend said. "With higher mortality from CVD still found in Eastern Europe and non-EU countries, it is clear that the progress that has been made in Western Europe and most EU countries is yet to be achieved equally throughout the region."