The World Health Organization reports more than 17 million people a year die from heart disease and stroke, making it the world's largest killer. To mark World Heart Day, health specialists are urging people to exercise, to eat healthy food, and to stop smoking to keep their hearts strong and stay alive. 

Statistics show the number of people dying from heart disease and stroke is going up instead of going down. The head of the Geneva-based World Heart Federation, Janet Voute, says the situation is particularly bad in low and middle-income countries, where 80 percent of deaths from these diseases occur.

"The heart health of people in low and middle income countries is not being attended to," she said. "The reason for this is that cardiovascular disease and its risk factors, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. are not at all considered part of the global health agenda."

The World Heart Federation says physical inactivity, an unhealthy diet and tobacco use are the main causes of cardiovascular disease. It says controlling these major risk factors could prevent 80 percent of heart disease and stroke and help keep the heart healthy.

Voute says myths persist that cardiovascular disease is a problem of rich countries and that people in poor countries are more at risk from infectious diseases. She says studies show overweight and obesity in the poorer countries is rising and this is having a negative impact on health.

"In India, where we all know that there is a malnourished population and children and families go hungry. There are also now 35 million diabetics and, they are, for the most part, this diabetes is the direct result of overweight," continued Voute. "The same thing is true in China where we know that one out of every five children in Beijing, for example, is today overweight or obese. And even across the African continent, where the issue of obesity and overweight is particularly difficult to tackle, it is on the rise, particularly in urban women and their awareness needs to be increased."

Although most deaths from heart disease and stroke now occur in the poorer countries, the World Heart Federation says the problem remains acute in the developed world.

It says people in countries such as the United States are dying from cardiovascular disease later in life because of good patient care. But, it warns the rising rate of obesity in children is leading to early diabetes, and this will lead to early cardiovascular disease unless something is done to reverse this trend.