BACKGROUND: Mortality from coronary heart disease in the United States has decreased substantially in recent decades. We conducted a study to determine how much of this decrease could be explained by the use of medical and surgical treatments as opposed to changes in cardiovascular risk factors. METHODS: We applied a previously validated statistical model, IMPACT, to data on the use and effectiveness of specific cardiac treatments and on changes in risk factors between 1980 and 2000 among U.S. adults 25 to 84 years old. The difference between the observed and expected number of deaths from coronary heart disease in 2000 was distributed among the treatments and risk factors included in the analyses. RESULTS: From 1980 through 2000, the age-adjusted death rate for coronary heart disease fell from 542.9 to 266.8 deaths per 100,000 population among men and from 263.3 to 134.4 deaths per 100,000 population among women, resulting in 341,745 fewer deaths from coronary heart disease in 2000. Approximately 47% of this decrease was attributed to treatments, including secondary preventive therapies after myocardial infarction or revascularization (11%), initial treatments for acute myocardial infarction or unstable angina (10%), treatments for heart failure (9%), revascularization for chronic angina (5%), and other therapies (12%). Approximately 44% was attributed to changes in risk factors, including reductions in total cholesterol (24%), systolic blood pressure (20%), smoking prevalence (12%), and physical inactivity (5%), although these reductions were partially offset by increases in the body-mass index and the prevalence of diabetes, which accounted for an increased number of deaths (8% and 10%, respectively). CONCLUSIONS: Approximately half the decline in U.S. deaths from coronary heart disease from 1980 through 2000 may be attributable to reductions in major risk factors and approximately half to evidence-based medical therapies.