The American Heart Association’s newest statistical report sheds light on the startling discovery that heart disease was the no. 1 killer during the first year of the pandemic and not COVID-19.

This week, the nonprofit organization released an updated version of its yearly statistical report on diseases and mortality rates of the U.S. population, including statistics on heart disease, stroke and other vascular conditions.

The 2023 Statistical Update published on Circulation was made in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health and covered the most up-to-date statistics concerning the major clinical heart and circulatory disease conditions and their associated outcomes.

Based on AHA’s data, the first year of the pandemic witnessed a steep rise in cardiovascular deaths in the United States. Cardiovascular disease-related deaths reportedly jumped from 874,513 in 2019 to 928,741 the following year, marking the largest single-year increase since 2015.

Although COVID-19 started to be considered one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. in 2020, deaths due to cardiovascular disease accounted for more that year. CVD comprises various conditions, including heart disease, stroke, hypertension, heart failure and high blood pressure.

The AHA said that heart disease was the no. 1 killer or the leading cause of death in the U.S. and globally three years ago. The largest increases in CVD deaths were reported among Asian, Black and Hispanic people, according to Medscape.

“What may be even more telling is that our age-adjusted mortality rate increased for the first time in many years and by a fairly substantial 4.6%,” the association’s writing committee chair Dr. Connie W. Tsao said in a news release.

The assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School continued, "The age-adjusted mortality rate takes into consideration that the total population may have more older adults from one year to another, in which case you might expect higher rates of death among older people. So even though our total number of deaths have been slowly increasing over the past decade, we have seen a decline each year in our age-adjusted rates – until 2020."

Tsao noted that the finding should not come as a surprise considering the tremendous impact of COVID-19 on people from all age groups. She said that the data was observed when the COVID-19 vaccines were still unavailable.

"We observed this sharp rise in age-adjusted CVD deaths, which corresponds to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those of us healthcare providers knew from the overfull hospitals and ICUs that clearly COVID took a toll, particularly in those with cardiovascular risk factors," Tsao said, as quoted by Medscape.

Prior to the pandemic, researchers saw a decrease in heart attack cases. But the global health crisis quickly interrupted that progress.

“The dramatic rise in heart attacks during the pandemic has reversed what was a prior decades-long steady improvement in cardiac deaths,” first author Yee Hui Yeo, MD, was quoted by KHON2 News as saying.