Cancer Now the Number One Cause of Death in Many States

By Lila Abassi — Mar 10, 2016
In data obtained from each individual state, researchers were able to determine that in many states, cancer is the leading cause of death, beating out cardiovascular disease, which has consistently been the leading cause of death since the 1940s.
shutterstock_210849325 Major Causes of Death via Shutterstock

Since the 1940s, it has been a statistical reality that cardiovascular disease (CVD) was the leading cause of death in the United States with cancer coming in second.

It’s a race, we are hoping, where both will lose, but that will likely not be the case for many more years to come.  Data on cancer, and not CVD as the number one cause of death, in many states, was recently presented at a session of the American Heart Association (AHA) Epidemiology and Prevention and Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health (EPI/Lifestyle) 2016 Scientific Sessions.

The contributing factor for this shift was the rapidly declining CVD mortality rates which highlights the success of efforts to prevent CVD and its treatment.

The authors gathered state-specific mortality data and calculated state-specific mortality rate ratios (i.e. the incidence of death rate from CVD relative to cancer) annually from 1999-2013.  What they found was that in 1999, CVD was the leading cause of death in 49 states, with the exception being Alaska.  However, by 2013, CVD was the leading cause of death in only 27 states while cancer led in 23 states.

The significance of this data, according to the study authors, is that on a national level, this reality gets masked and it would be incorrect to claim that CVD is the leading cause of death when in almost half the states it is not.  The authors also mention that this highlights the need for improvements in cancer prevention and control.

According to the lead author of the study, Dr. Michael C. Harding (Brigham Young University, Provo, UT), “Although we should encourage and continue our efforts to decrease the burden of cardiovascular disease, we should also do a better job of preventing and controlling cancer,” (via Medscape).

Cancer rates have been dropping steadily since their peak in 1991, thanks to declines in smoking rates, improved treatments and improved screening.  Interestingly, according to the CDC website, the one cancer that seems to be defying the trend is liver cancer; between 2008 and 2012, liver cancer incidence rate (number of new cases) went up 2.3 percent per year and liver cancer death rate 2.8 percent per year for men and 3.4 percent per year for women.

We are headed in the right direction, and we need to continue to wage the public health battle to educate the public about lifestyle modifications that can prevent both CVD and cancer.