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Study finds dramatic decline in heart disease deaths, but not for everyone

If you're young and active, heart disease may be the furthest thing from your mind. But a new study finds that while deaths from coronary heart disease, the most common type, have declined dramatically in older Americans over the last few decades, those improvements were not shared equally by people under 55, especially women.

One possible reason? In younger adults, researchers say "epidemic increases" of diabetes and obesity may be a factor. In women, especially, those conditions could present an added danger.

"Some reports suggest that diabetes and obesity may pose a greater heart disease risk in younger women than in other groups," said Dr. Viola Vaccarino, professor and chair of epidemiology at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta and the senior author of the study. "Women need to become more aware of the heart risks of these conditions."

The study, published today in the American Heart Association's journal Circulation, also notes that social and psychological risk factors, such as depression and stress, may play a role in the development of heart disease.

"Non-traditional risk factors may be especially important in the younger age group," Vaccarino noted in a statement. "For example, in other research we and others have done, factors such as stress and depression are particularly common among young women with early-onset heart disease, and are powerful predictors of heart disease or its progression in this group."

Using data on adults age 25 and older, the researchers tracked annual changes in heart disease death rates over more than three decades, from 1979 to 2011.

In adults 65 and older, the study found the death rate from heart disease declined steadily over the entire period. And those improvements accelerated after 2000.

But in adults under age 55, the annual death rate from heart disease initially declined between 1979 and 1989, but then improvement slowed. For women in particular, the annual change in death rates showed no improvement between 1990 and 1999, and has only fallen one percent since 2000.

"We think that these trends are not related to differences in treatment and hospitalization, but rather to a lack of effective preventive strategies for young people, particularly women," said Vaccarino.

The research suggests that more work is needed to understand heart disease in adults under 55 and in women.

"This population has not been studied as much as older groups, partially because they are generally considered to be at low risk," said Vaccarino. "There is an urgent need for more research."

Dr. Alexander Gorodnitskiy, a cardiologist at Lenox Health Greenwich Village in New York, told CBS News the study highlights the need to rethink strategies that focus on traditional risk factors like high blood pressure and cholesterol.

"Maybe it's time to look outside of those things and look at stress management, sleep, all kinds of quality of life issues we don't sometimes have the time to address," said Gorodnitskiy.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is responsible for one in every four deaths each year.