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Cardiologists have struggled in recent years to score major advances against heart disease and stroke. Although death rates have been dropping steadily since the 1960s, progress combating the twin diseases has plateaued by other measures.

Genetics has had a profound impact on cancer treatment in recent years. Now, heart-disease specialists hope genetics will reveal fresh insight into the interaction between a person’s biology, living habits and medications that can better predict who is at risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Heart disease is linked to about 800,000 deaths a year in the U.S. In 2010, some 200,000 of those deaths could have been avoided, including more than 112,300 deaths among people younger than 65. Now, widespread prevalence of obesity and diabetes threatens to undermine such gains. And a large gap remains between how white patients and minorities—especially African-Americans—benefit from effective strategies.

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