A third of all deaths in the world result from cardiovascular disease. World Heart Day on Sunday is a chance to remind the public that most of the 17 million fatal heart attacks and strokes around the world every year, including 25,000 in Switzerland, could be avoided.
"We have to realize that in most cases, getting heart disease isn't a question of bad luck, it's a question of prevention," said Dr Antoni Bayés de Luna, chairman of World Heart Day and former president of the World Heart Federation.
This view is shared by Dr Rubino Mordasini, General Secretary of the Swiss Heart Foundation. "So far, the message hasn't been getting through enough," he said. "Prevention of cardiovascular disease could be markedly improved."
In the 90 member countries of the Geneva-based World Heart Federation, ten important pieces of advice are being given to the public. Among the suggestions - take exercise, eat healthily, stop smoking, relax and get your doctor to check your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
The Swiss Heart Foundation, supported by 50 regional Heart groups, is leading the campaign in Switzerland.
"Perhaps in the future, genomics may hold the key to some cardiovascular diseases but, at the moment, the most effective way is prevention and reducing the risk factors," Bayés told swissinfo. He said the challenge was not only getting people to recognise the link between lifestyle and heart disease, but to get them to do something about it on an everyday basis.
Being slim may not prevent you suffering a heart attack, but it may mean that you have it 10 years later than you would have done, had you been overweight.
Secondary prevention - the measures one can take after already suffering cardiovascular problems - is becoming increasingly effective. But there is a growing realization that young people need to be targeted, so that the necessary lifestyle changes become part of everyday routine. "We have to convince them that this will improve their lives," said Bayes.
Growth in developing world
Heart disease has long been considered a western phenomenon. However, there has been an explosion of cardiovascular illness in the developing world. Within 20 years, CVD will be the biggest cause of death in every part of the world, with heart disease overtaking communicable diseases in places like sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America.
"These countries are beginning to adopt the bad habits of western societies: junk food, smoking, a sedentary life and stress," said Bayés. "The increase in deaths is already huge."
Here, in these poorer countries, prevention is even more important. The increase in cardiovascular disease promises to be a growing economic burden for much of the developing world.
The rate of increase of CVD deaths in western industrialized countries is likely to slow and even decrease, as preventive measures begin to have a more pronounced effect. Predictions are that people will begin to experience their first cardiovascular problems at a later age than they do presently.
Currently, the situation in Switzerland is similar to that in the countries of the Mediterranean, with around 40 per cent of deaths caused by CVD. That compares favourably with the situation in northern Europe and the United States, where the figure is between 45 and 48 per cent.
Nonetheless, there are still a great number of people of working age who are incapacitated by heart attacks. This has economic consequences for their family and for society.
"In the healthcare sector, we have to look carefully where we spend our money. Nearly half of all patients admitted to hospital have primary or secondary cardiovascular problems," said Mordasini.
"We need the active cooperation of the patients, and we have to employ all the preventive measures at our disposal."
by Roy Probert