More than one in three people in the U.S. currently have some form of heart disease, and it remains the leading cause of death in the country. Treating all of our coronary heart disease, heart failure, high blood pressure, stroke and other conditions last year cost about $272.5 billion. In 20 years, that price tag is likely to triple to $818.1 billion a year—even if costly new treatments don't arise—according to an analysis published online January 24 in the Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

This "remarkable increase in costs" is expected "just through demographic changes in the population," Paul Heidenreich, who chaired the expert panel responsible for the report, said in a prepared statement.

With an aging population, by 2030 some 116 million people in the U.S. (about 40 percent of the population) are expected to have at least one form of heart disease. "Despite the success in reducing and treating heart disease over the last half century, even if we just maintain our current rates, we will have an enormous financial burden," Heidenreich said. Since 2000, heart disease alone has led to about 15 percent of the increase in total U.S. medical spending, which now tops $2.5 trillion annually. And, according to the new analysis, the cost just of treating hypertension is expected to grow $258.3 billion between 2010 and 2030.

The key to slowing the trend, reported the experts, is improving prevention—both on the individual and policy levels. "Unhealthy behaviors and unhealthy environments have contributed to a tidal wave of risk factors among many Americans," Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, said in a prepared statement. "Early intervention and evidenced-based public policies are absolute musts." The report also points out a need to prepare more healthcare workers—including primary care doctors, specialists, nurses and pharmacists—for the expected demand.

Beyond the medical expenses themselves, the experts advised, heart disease resulted in about $172 billion in lost productivity due to missed work, premature death and other factors. That figure is expected to rise to $276 billion by 2030, tipping the scale of heart disease's annual cost in the U.S. beyond $1 trillion.

Heart disease is not the only common chronic disease that is likely to bring a steep price increase in the coming decades (it currently is responsible for some 17 percent of national health care costs). A study published earlier this month reported that the cost of cancer care is likely to climb some 40 to 66 percent in the next 10 years (bringing an annual total of $173 billion or $207 billion, respectively).

Image courtesy of CDC/James Gathany