China is staring down a very expensive heart disease problem

Heart disease is on the rise in China.
Heart disease is on the rise in China.
Image: Imaginechina via AP Images
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The globe’s second-largest economy has a heart problem.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that, between 1990 and 2016, the proportion of Chinese people living with heart disease increased by about 15%, from 5,265 per 100,000 people to 6,037 per 100,000. In 2016 alone, it was estimated that there were some 94 million cases of heart disease in the country. That said, the overall death rate because of heart disease dropped 29% across that same period.

These data “imply high health care costs and warn of even higher costs in the future, given the rapidly aging and growing population,” the study states.

The researchers analyzed data from the Global Burden of Disease Study, a project by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation based out of the University of Washington. The project collects and analyzes information submitted by more than 3,600 researchers in some 145 countries to allow for regular updates on global health. The researchers noted that getting a totally accurate picture of public health in China is made more difficult by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which is slow to make more recent national health information public.

The findings represent a stark reality for the Chinese government, which has only to look to the other side of the planet to see just how deadly and expensive heart disease can be when it’s common across an entire population. In the US, about 630,000 people die from the condition every year, accounting for about a quarter of all deaths, according to the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease is estimated to cost the American economy upwards of $200 billion every year, including the cost of health care services, medications, and lost productivity.

There are several gateways to the development of the condition, including diabetes, poor diet, lack of exercise, obesity, and excessive alcohol use. And these are issues with which China is grappling. Thanks largely to the introduction of more Westernized diets in the 1980s, childhood obesity numbers have shot up dramatically in China’s rural provinces. Within one generation, the share of Chinese children who were overweight or obese rose from 5% to 20%.

The Chinese government seems to be aware of the growing problem. In May 2016, officials with the country’s National Health and Family Planning Commission handed down a recommendation that people go easy on eating meat and eggs. The dietary advice was in line with a growing body of evidence that links red meat consumption with elevated risks to heart disease. It also emphasized the importance of staying active and maintaining a diet rich in vegetables—both of which work toward preventing health issues that commonly lead to heart problems.