MONDAY, Aug. 15, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Cancer has overtaken heart disease and stroke as the leading cause of death in 12 European countries, a new study reports.
However, cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke) is still the leading cause of death worldwide, killing more than 17 million people a year, according to the study.
In the 53 countries defined as the European region by the World Health Organization, heart disease killed more than 4 million people in 2016. Those deaths accounted for 45 percent of all deaths in those nations. Cancer accounted for less than half the number of deaths from heart disease in Europe as a whole, researchers said.
However, success in preventing and treating heart disease seems to have led to large declines in heart disease deaths in a number of countries.
Cancer now kills more men than heart disease in these 12 countries: Belgium, Denmark, France, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and the United Kingdom, the study showed.
The study also found that cancer now kills more women than heart disease in Denmark and Israel.
Findings from the study were published Aug. 15 in the European Heart Journal.
"These figures highlight the wide inequalities between European countries in deaths from [heart disease and stroke]," said study leader Nick Townsend in a journal news release. He is a senior researcher at the British Heart Foundation Centre on Population Approaches for Non-Communicable Disease Prevention at the University of Oxford in England.
The countries where cancer caused more death than heart disease were all found in Western Europe, he noted, adding that nine of them were members of the European Union before 2004.
In contrast, the highest numbers of deaths from heart disease and stroke still tend to be seen in Eastern European countries, Townsend said.
"Although we have seen progress across Europe in the prevention and treatment of [heart disease and stroke], leading to decreases in mortality from it, it is clear that such progress is not consistent across the continent," he said.
"We need more research into why some countries are showing improved outcomes, while others are not," Townsend said. Data must be collected and compared between countries "so that health professionals and national governments can target interventions more effectively to reduce inequalities," he said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on heart disease.