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Charity fears ‘domino effect’ from Covid-19 as deaths from strokes and heart disease rise

A heart and a stethoscope
Charity bosses fear the pandemic has had a “dangerous domino effect” on the public’s wider health as deaths from strokes and heart disease have risen.

Charity bosses fear the pandemic has had a “dangerous domino effect” on the public’s wider health as deaths from strokes and heart disease have risen.

Public Health Scotland released new figures that cover the first year of the pandemic, covering March 2020 to March 2021.

Data showed 6,727 deaths from coronary heart disease – the highest since 2017.

Deaths from stroke were at their highest since 2016, sitting at 2,180.

In addition, the number of strokes increased to the highest level in a decade to 9,352.

Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland, which cares for people with heart and stroke conditions, said Covid-19 had “stalled recent progress” at tackling stroke and heart disease – and called for more to be done.

Pandemic has ‘stalled’ progress

Jane-Claire Judson, chief executive at Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland, said the new reports confirm what they have “long feared.”

“The initial Covid crisis has created a dangerous domino effect on people’s health that will have serious consequences for years to come,” she continued.

“We’re seeing some of the recent hard-won progress made in tackling stroke and heart disease stall.”

As a result, Ms Judson went on to explain, more families are grieving the loss of a loved one.

The charity’s services teams have been seeing people with more complex needs because of their strokes or heart problems because it’s been “identified later than they normally would”.

She added: “Covid and its impacts aren’t going away anytime soon and we need to prepare our health services to cope with surges by preventing pressures on the system.

“That’s why it’s vital that the Scottish Government works to better integrate health and social care services with charities who can keep people well at home – and prevent them needing A&E or complex hospital treatment.”

Decrease in coronary heart disease

According to Public Health Scotland, in 2020 there were 6,727 deaths in Scotland where coronary heart disease (CHD) was the underlying cause.

However, while there has been a 24% reduction in the death rate from CHD over the last decade, the rate of decline has slowed in the last five years.

The mortality rate for men who suffer a heart attack had “now returned to the levels in 2013”, the report stated.

Figures for NHS Grampian showed a decrease in deaths from coronary heart disease (CHD), down by 23 at 652 – almost back to the pre-pandemic rate of 2017.

Similarly, NHS Highland recorded 13 fewer deaths from CHD last year – from 451 in 2019 to 438.

Stroke deaths lowest in NHS Highland

There has also been a large drop in discharges for so-called mini strokes (TIAs) down to 3,760 – the lowest number since 2012-13.

Hospital discharges for stroke have also decreased to 24,364, down from 24,958 in the previous year.

A sharp decline in hospital discharges for coronary heart disease – 43,535 compared with 51,397 in the previous year.

The mortality rate from stroke decreased in the majority of the mainland boards between 2011 and 2020 – NHS Highland had the highest percentage decrease at 37.7%.

‘Scotland’s fourth biggest killer’

In addition, the death rate for cerebrovascular disease in the most deprived areas in 2020 was 43% higher than in the least deprived areas.

John Watson, Scotland’s associate director of the Stroke Association, said stroke remains Scotland’s “fourth biggest killer” and called for urgent improvements to prevention, treatment and care.

He added: “The latest stroke figures reinforce what the Stroke Association has repeatedly said – that stroke has a huge impact on the health and social care landscape in Scotland, and those who live in the poorest parts of our country are the most adversely affected.

“The health and social burden of stroke falls most heavily on certain groups.

“More than 128,000 Scots are living with the effects of their stroke.

“The need for improvements in stroke prevention, treatment and care is urgent and recognised by the Scottish Government.

“We await the imminent publication of the Scottish Government’s vision report outlining a new progressive stroke service for Scotland.

“We then expect a Stroke Action Plan to follow that quickly – outlining how the vision is to be delivered in Health Boards and communities across Scotland.”

‘Significant progress’ underway for patients, says Scottish Government

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “It is good news that the rate of incidence and the number of deaths from coronary heart disease and stroke have both decreased over the last decade.

“In particular the mortality rates for stroke have reduced by 26% over the last ten years, which is great progress.

“We continue to deliver on our 2019/20 Programme for Government commitments on stroke.

“In particular we have made significant progress in establishing a thrombectomy service in Scotland.

“Pilot services are already underway in Tayside and Lothian, with a national service expected to be fully operational by 2023.

“Our Heart Disease Action Plan sets out measures to minimise preventable heart disease and ensure those who are affected have timely and equitable access to diagnosis, treatment and care.”

If you’re living with the effects of heart disease and stroke and looking for advice and information, contact Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland’s advice line on 0808 801 0899 or email

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