Britons are three times more likely than the French to die from heart disease, according to a new European league table.

Heart Disease map
©European Society of Cardiology
Age-standardized mortality from ischaemic heart disease in European regions (men; age group 45 - 74 years; year 2000)

Even some of the most deprived parts of eastern Europe have fewer cardiac deaths proportionally than the UK. The findings have reopened a debate among experts as to why the French lifestyle appears to be so successful in keeping down rates of heart disease - despite a high-fat diet, high cholesterol levels, and rates of smoking and drinking that match the UK's.

Among people aged 45 to 74, there are 202 deaths linked to heart disease annually per 100,000 people in England and Wales, compared with just 65 in France, which has the lowest rate in Europe.

Scotland fares slightly better than England and Wales, with 175 deaths, while Northern Ireland fares worse, with 227 deaths.

The figures, published in the European Heart Journal, show that eastern European countries including Slovenia and Albania suffer fewer heart disease deaths than the UK.

Prof Peter Weissburg of the British Heart Foundation described France's position at the top of the chart as an "enigma".

He said: "The debate goes on about what it is that is so special about France. The theories are that it is the protective qualities of red wine, or the use of olive oil, combined with the higher proportion of fruit and vegetables eaten, but we have still not identified any magic ingredient to explain it."

Prof Neil Poulter, a cardiologist, from Imperial College Healthcare trust, said today's death rates reflected lifestyle habits 30 or 40 years ago when France had a lower consumption of animal fats, lower cholesterol levels and lower rates of smoking than Britain.