The World Health Organization says the global epidemic of heart disease and stroke is now more prevalent in developing countries than in industrialized countries. A new report by WHO says these twin diseases are the leading causes of death worldwide.

The World Health Organization reports heart disease and stroke kill some 17 million people a year. This is almost one third of all deaths globally. It warns the number of deaths will grow to 24 million by 2030 if preventive measures are not taken now.

The report shatters a few myths. It notes cardiovascular disease is no longer mainly a problem of middle aged men in rich countries. Statistics show 75 percent of heart disease now is found in developing countries and the epidemic hits both men and women in almost equal numbers.

WHO Cardiovascular Disease Coordinator, Shanthi Mendis, says only a few risk factors are responsible for this global epidemic.

"You have physical inactivity, you have tobacco smoking and you have unhealthy diet leading to obesity, leading to elevated blood pressure levels, elevated blood cholesterol levels and elevated blood sugar levels," said Shanthi Mendis. "75 percent of the epidemic can be explained by these few risk factors. They are common to all populations. They are equally important for men and women, they are very important for children."

WHO says overweight children are three to five times more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke before they reach the age of 65.

The co-author of a new Atlas of Heart Disease and Stroke, Judith Mackay, says obesity among children and adults in many Asian countries is increasing with fatal consequences. She says all the lifestyle problems which contributed to cardiovascular diseases in the West now have traveled to the East.

"There are more elevators now in Asia," she said. "There are more cars in Asia. There are more buses in Asia. There is more fast food in Asia. There is more sugar eaten. There is more an adoption of some of perhaps the excesses of the Western life-style ranging from MTV to Philip Morris to McDonald's are actually penetrating many parts of Asia."

Dr. Shanti Mendis adds people in South Asia have a greater genetic susceptibility to risk factors for heart disease and stroke than do people in the West. As for Africa, she says, people die of AIDS before heart disease can develop and kill them. But, she adds people who get heart disease there are worse off than elsewhere in the world because countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are unable to care for them.

"A disease like cardiovascular disease which is a chronic disease which needs lifelong treatment, which needs good follow-up, which needs drug treatment," she said. "It is going to be a tremendous problem for Africa in time to come, unless they put in place preventive approaches."

The World Health Organization says heart disease and stroke are often preventable. It urges governments to put policies in place which will help people to stop smoking, to eat better and to engage in physical activity.