Ischaemic heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) lead to 17.5 million deaths worldwide per year. Taking into account population ageing, CVD death rates are decreasing steadily both in regions with reliable trend data and globally. The declines in high-income countries and some Latin American countries have been ongoing for decades without slowing. These positive trends have broadly coincided with, and benefited from, declines in smoking and physiological risk factors, such as blood pressure and serum cholesterol levels. These declines have also coincided with, and benefited from, improvements in medical care, including primary prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of acute CVDs, as well as post-hospital care, especially in the past 40 years. These variables, however, explain neither why the decline began when it did, nor the similarities and differences in the start time and rate of the decline between countries and sexes. In Russia and some other former Soviet countries, changes in volume and patterns of alcohol consumption have caused sharp rises in CVD mortality since the early 1990s. An important challenge in reaching firm conclusions about the drivers of these remarkable international trends is the paucity of time-trend data on CVD incidence, risk factors throughout the life-course, and clinical care.