Rates of heart disease and stroke are continuing to decline in Europe, but more people are being hospitalised with the conditions, new research shows.

Overall, cardiovascular disease (CVD) continues to be the single greatest cause of death in Europe, but death rates vary enormously by country. While it causes twice as many deaths as cancer in some nations, in others cancer is now causing more deaths than heart disease in men, says the study, which is published in the European Heart Journal.

For some eastern European countries, including Russia and Ukraine, the death rate from coronary heart disease (CHD) among 55-60-year-olds is greater than the equivalent rate in France for people 20 years older.

The age-adjusted CVD death rates for men and women of all ages were six-fold higher in Russia than in France, and in 2010, 915 men and 517 women died per 100,000 of the population in Russia, while the equivalent rates in France were 150 and 87 per 100,000, respectively.

In the UK, the CVD death rates for 2010 were 205 and 129 per 100,000 men and women, respectively.

Cancer is now causing more deaths than heart disease in a number of European countries – Belgium, Denmark, France, Israel, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and San Marino – the researchers reported. Also, for the first time, cancer has overtaken CVD as the main cause of death among women in a European country – Denmark.

This is because, in these countries, fewer people are developing CVD and in those who do, fewer die of it, said co-author Nick Townsend, senior researcher at the British Heart Foundation (BHF).

“This is probably due to improvements in the behavioural risk factors associated with CVD, such as decreases in the number of people smoking tobacco, along with better treatments, including preventive ones such as the increasing use of statins. However, increases in some risk factors, such as rising levels of obesity, suggest that these decreasing trends may be in danger of reversing,” he added.

The rates of people hospitalised for CVD have increased, probably reflecting the impact of increasing numbers of elderly people in the population, the authors suggest.

Worldwide, there have been few moments in history during which non-communicable diseases (NCDs) have enjoyed such a prominent place in the world’s attention, with cardiovascular disease at the forefront of the activity. Yet there has been little commitment at the national or regional level to greater monitoring and reporting of risk factors and outcomes for CVD, the authors comment.