How heart disease has changed over the past 60 years

WATCH: Cindy Pom reports that despite survival rates of heart attack patients increasing, unhealthy lifestyles are threatening to undermine progress.

TORONTO – Dr. Eldon Smith remembers the days when statins, beta blockers and blood thinners didn’t exist. In the past 60 years, he’s seen the landscape in heart disease research and treatment improve drastically.

In the 1960s, the now-retired cardiologist treated the typical heart attack patient: male, about 50 years old, obese, with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a sedentary lifestyle. The patient would stay in hospital for weeks and he might not even return to work.

There was no specific treatment for heart disease at the time – no coronary care unit in the hospital, stents, angioplasty, pacemakers or drugs to correct heart arrhythmia or blood pressure.

“It’s mind boggling to think about the changes that have gone on. It’s taken a disease that was very worrisome and struck people down in their prime of life into a situation where…it’s become a chronic disease,” Eldon, who’s a decades-long researcher and spokesman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, told Global News.

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READ MORE: Pay attention to stroke warning signs, Heart and Stroke Foundation says

In the 1960s, doctors were still wrapping their heads around heart disease and its causes – they didn’t even know blood clots were what caused a heart attack or that smoking, an unhealthy diet or lack of exercise were risk factors.

Smith calls the past few decades the “most exceptional time of growth and understanding of cardiovascular disease.”

“It’s made being a cardiologist very exciting. It’s really an amazing story and that story is the result of amazing research,” he said.

The face of heart disease is quickly transforming but the medical community has made huge strides in understanding cardiovascular health, according to a new Heart and Stroke Foundation report released Tuesday.

For its report, the national foundation interviewed 16 of the country’s leading cardiovascular experts – including Smith. Hands down, the doctors name survival rates as Canada’s greatest triumph against heart disease.

READ MORE: Some Canadians misunderstanding stroke recovery process, report says

In 1952, heart disease and stroke accounted for 46 per cent of deaths in Canada. Back then, 30 per cent of heart attack patients didn’t survive. Right now, that number is down to a mere five per cent.

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Smoking rates have dropped from 50 per cent in the 1950s to about 16 per cent today.

Scientists and a library of research have shed light on how cholesterol levels, blood pressure, diet and exercise are tied to heart disease.

Doctors can now rely on beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, statins and anticoagulants to treat their patients to prevent blood clots, high blood pressure, and subsequent heart attacks. They now have MRIs and CT scanners for precise diagnosing.

There are open-heart surgeries and less invasive procedures, such as angioplasty.

Take Tim McEown as an example. In November 2010, at 48 years old, the Toronto writer suffered a heart attack.

“It happened very quickly – like I went from zero to 60 in 30 seconds. It felt like an elephant was on my chest, I turned slate grey and I had what felt like raindrops coming down my forehead. I couldn’t catch my breath,” he described to Global News.

It was a textbook example of a heart attack as McEown had always understood it.

“I felt it was ridiculous, like it was a cliché moment,” he explained.

READ MORE: 5 lifestyle changes to improve your heart’s health

His wife called 911 immediately. Three of his arteries were almost completely closed due to plaque buildup. In the operating room, doctors placed stents into his arteries through a simple incision in his wrist. Within three days, McEown was out of hospital.

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“The whole thing from the start of my heart attack to the time I had surgery was maybe an hour long. It’s extraordinary – it was almost routine,” he said.

This wasn’t always the case, though. Smith recalls a time when drugs to manage heart disease risks were readily available but the side effects were so severe, patients would refuse to take them.

If heart disease patients survived, their lives were often restricted to staying at home, avoiding work and physical activity.

But rates of heart disease aren’t stalling in Canada and researchers face new challenges.

READ MORE: Male heart attack patients receive faster care than women

Obesity, diabetes and an aging population are major concerns. Sixty per cent of Canadians are overweight or obese – in children, obesity rates have tripled. Right now, nine out of 10 Canadians have at least one risk factor for heart disease.

“We’re worried that after all the tremendous progress we’ve made, we may see a new wave of heart disease and stroke developing because of obesity,” Smith warned.

He’s encouraging Canadians to look after their heart health and pay attention to the risk factors. His life’s work has been dedicated to studying the heart.

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“One of the things that thrilled me so much was being able to touch a beating heart for the first time. It is an amazing piece of equipment,” Smith told Global News.

“This delicate organ – it contracts 100,000 times every day, it can go on for many decades. Modern technology doesn’t compare, there’s no piece of equipment that has been manufactured yet that can do this. You can’t help but be so impressed with how resilient this organ is,” he said.

READ MORE: Quarter of heart attack patients weren’t tested for diabetes or high cholesterol

Every seven minutes in Canada, someone dies from heart disease or stroke, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

About 1.6 million Canadians live with cardiovascular disease.

Read the full report here.