Military autopsy study confirms declining coronary disease rate

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A new study from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., shows that the percentage of American service members with signs of coronary artery disease has declined in the last half century falling to a rate of less than 1 in 10 military personnel. This compares with a finding of atherosclerosis in over three-quarters of autopsies among soldiers killed in the Korean War.

Published in JAMA, the study was based on autopsies and medical records of almost 4,000 service members who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011. The average age was 26. Overall, 8.5 percent had some degree of hardening and narrowing of the coronary arteries coronary atherosclerosis. Comparatively, when pathologists carried out a similar study on 300 soldiers killed during the Korean War, 77 percent had coronary atherosclerosis.

Dr. Daniel Levy, a cardiologist and director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute s Framingham Heart Study, who was not directly involved in the study, says that this study shows clearly that the prevalence of coronary artery disease in young people is on the decline. The Korean War study revealed a silent epidemic of coronary artery disease, he said, and now the pendulum is swinging in the other direction as a result of prevention efforts.

Researchers attribute the decreased incidence of coronary arterial disease to declining rates of cardiovascular risk factors, such as high cholesterol and uncontrolled high blood pressure. Furthermore, between 1980 and 2000, smoking rates among service members fell by 40 percent. Nationwide, deaths from heart disease, after adjusting for age, have dropped by 72 percent since 1968.