Cardiovascular disease (CVD) may still be the leading cause of death in most parts of the world, but a new study has found that, as far as 12 European countries are concerned, that threat has been overtaken by cancer, effectively making it the top killer among them.

To be clear, however, the findings don't mean that cancer has suddenly become more dangerous. Rather, the researchers suggest that efforts aimed at improving treatment for and preventing CVD are working.

In a study published in the European Heart Journal, researchers from Oxford detail how they found that cancer has passed CVD as a cause of death and disability in much of Western Europe over the past few years. Specifically, they found that cancer is a greater cause of death than CVD in 10 countries that are members of the European Union — Portugal, France, Belgium, Italy, Denmark, Luxembourg, Spain, the Netherlands, Slovenia and the United Kingdom (Brexit could be delayed to the end of 2019). The situation is the same in non-EU countries Norway and Israel.

For example, according to the most recent data available, 92,375 men died of cancer, while 64,659 died of CVD in France during 2011. Similarly, in 2013, 67,711 men died of cancer and 53,487 died of CVD in Spain, while 87,511 men died of cancer and 79,935 died of CVD in the UK.

While this data suggests that efforts at combating CVD are improving, it also raises one interesting question: "Why has this trend only been observed in Western Europe?"

According to data from the World Health Organization, nearly one-third of deaths around the world in 2012 (about 17.5 million people) were caused by cardiovascular disease. A similar study in 2015 had results consistent with that, finding that CVD claims about one in every three American lives.

Data from the recently-revised European Standard Population appeared to be consistent with this, too, with researchers finding that four million deaths in Europe, or 45 percent of all deaths on the continent, are linked to CVD, while cancer accounts for less than half of that. However, this was mostly because of the majority of Eastern Europe and non-EU countries skewing things in that direction.

"Although we have seen progress across Europe in the prevention and treatment of CVD, leading to decreases in mortality from it, it is clear that such progress is not consistent across the continent," said Dr. Nick Townsend, a senior researcher at the BHF Centre on Population Approaches for Non-Communicable Disease Prevention at the University of Oxford, in a press release. "With higher mortality from CVD still found in Eastern Europe and non-EU countries, it is clear that the progress that has been made in Western Europe and most EU countries is yet to be achieved equally throughout the region."

As such, researchers are left with an important task: figuring out why this is the case.

"We need more research into why some countries are showing improved outcomes, while others are not," Townsend added. "Improved data needs to be collected in all countries in order to make comparisons on deaths and suffering from CVD between countries so that health professionals and national governments can target interventions more effectively to reduce inequalities."

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