Despite many advances, coronary artery disease accounts for about 5,000 deaths in Ireland each year. The study, published in the Lancet, shows for the first time there is a clear threshold heart rate value above which patients are at risk (70 beats per minutes).
The European Society of Cardiology, the largest organisation representing cardiology professionals in Europe, is recommending that heart rate is routinely checked.
It means that heart rate, together with blood pressure and cholesterol, will be checked by doctors when assessing patients who have suffered a heart attack or have a history of coronary artery disease.
Almost 11,000 patients with coronary artery disease in 33 countries, including Ireland, were involved in the study. It was one of the largest of its kind and included patients from five Irish centres.
The study, that looked at the Irish-made drug, ivabradine, used to reduce heart rate, also found that it can reduce the risk of heart attack and further heart surgery by a up to a third.
The drug was licensed for use in stable angina in Ireland in December 2005 and is produced by the French pharmaceutical company, Servier, at its plant in Arklow, Co Wicklow, which employs more than 250 people.
Commenting on the results, Irish investigator Dr John Barton, from Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe, Co Mayo, said patients at risk should benefit from the finding.
“Often a lot of investigations are performed in daily clinical practice but a simple heart rate measurement is overlooked,” he said.
Dr Barton said the study had confirmed the need to measure heart rate in all coronary artery disease patients. For patients with a heart rate greater than 70 beats per minute, the increased risk was 34% for cardiovascular death; 46% for heart attack, 56% for heart failure and 38% for coronary revascularisation, a commonly performed heart surgery.
The study also found half of patients still had a heart rate greater than 70 beats per minutes despite already receiving effective medical treatment for cardiovascular disease.