A COMBINATION of improved lifestyle and better treatments has helped cut deaths from heart disease and stroke by more than a third since 2002.
Ten years ago, mortality from these circulatory system illnesses was 50pc higher than for cancer.
But the gap between these two diseases – which together still account for more than six in 10 deaths – has now greatly narrowed, according the Health in Ireland report for 2012.
Commenting on the figures, Dr John Barton, a cardiologist in Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, said several factors had led to a drop in deaths from what was once the biggest killer.
"They include better lifestyle and control of blood pressure and cholesterol. People are getting smaller heart attacks and have access to better treatments," he pointed out.
Last year, 9,551 people died from circulatory system deaths, compared with 11,652 in 2002.
The report said cancer death rates have fallen by 8pc since 2002, with a slight upward trend between 2010-2011. There were 8,684 cancer deaths last year –deaths in 2010 were still 2.2pc above the European average.
Ireland is below average for survival rates for breast, bowel and cervical cancers, according to the report from the Department of Health.
It warned that smoking, drinking and obesity continue to be issues "which have the potential to jeopardise many of the health gains achieved in recent years".
The report noted that while women's life expectancy at 81.6 years is longer than for men at 76.8 years, women have more health problems.
Over the past decade, life expectancy has increased from below the EU average to almost one year above it.
The number of babies born last year fell 1pc to 74,650 – but that's 14,000 more than a decade ago.
At the other end of the spectrum, the numbers of older age groups are rising and there will be a doubling of over-65s, reaching one million by 2035.
Deaths by suicide are down 4pc since 2002 but have increased by 6pc between 2010 and 2011.
Fewer people with mental illness are having to be admitted for psychiatric care – down from 23,677 to 18,992.
The number of specialists hired to treat public patients went up 42pc.
Ireland's per capita health spending rose steadily in real terms between 2001 and 2008 but has fallen since 2008.
We are spending less time in hospital, with the average stay falling to 5.71 days and more procedures are carried out without the need to stay overnight.
Health Minister James Reilly said he welcomed figures showing that the number of adults waiting longer than nine months for planned surgery had fallen, as had the volume of patients on trolleys.
The report noted that while alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking fell over the past decade, the official figures do not include purchases outside the State or illegal imports.
For that reason, the drop could be exaggerated. Despite the recession, there has been little change in our drinking and smoking habits between 2010 and 2011.
While vaccination rates for babies are now mostly 95pc, it is still 92pc for measles, mumps and rubella, although this is up from 73pc in 2002.