Cancer May Soon Become Leading Killer of Americans

Cancer has already surpassed heart disease as prime cause of death in 22 states, CDC report shows

Heart disease might soon relinquish its long reign as the number one killer of Americans to another scourge, cancer – if long-term mortality trends continue.

According to federal statistics, in 2000 cancer was the leading cause of death in just two states – Alaska and Minnesota. However, by 2014 cancer had taken the dubious top spot in 22 states, according to a recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The reasons for these shifts may lie in decades of steady progress against heart disease, and the increased longevity that has brought Americans.

“One could argue that we’re doing a better job of keeping people with heart disease alive,” American Heart Association spokeswoman Dr. Mariell Jessup told HealthDay. “It’s not that people aren’t experiencing heart disease, but they’re not dying from it.”

And the growing ranks of older heart disease survivors mean more deaths from other causes – including cancer.

“Cancer is a disease that is fundamentally associated with aging. If you outlive all the competing causes of mortality, there’s a greater and greater likelihood that you’re going to get cancer,” Dr. Richard Schilsky, chief medical officer for the American Society of Clinical Oncology, told HealthDay.

The new report was co-authored by Drs. Melonie Heron and Robert Anderson of the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. They tracked U.S. mortality figures for 1950 through 2014, and found that the gap in deaths for the two leading killers, heart disease and cancer, has narrowed considerably over time.

For example, while about 136,000 more white Americans passed away from heart disease than cancer in 2000, by 2012 that gap had shrunk to under 20,000, the report found.

And in three populations – Hispanics, Asians and Pacific Islanders – cancer has already overtaken heart disease as the leading killer.

Not surprisingly, cancer is more likely to be the prime cause of mortality in states that have succeeded at beating back heart disease, the report found.

Will cancer become the number one cause of death for Americans soon? That’s tough to say, given the most recent statistics.

According to the CDC report, deaths rates for heart disease and cancer have been roughly equivalent over recent years. Annual U.S. deaths from heart disease rose by about 3 percent between 2011 and 2014 – from 596,577 to 614,348. In comparison, deaths linked to cancer rose by 2.6) percent over the same period – from 576,691 to 591,699, the CDC found.

Experts agreed that the United States is making progress in terms of cancer prevention and treatment. But cancer researchers, as well as policymakers, may have their work cut out for them.

“Heart disease is basically one disease, whereas with cancer we’re looking at more than 100 different diseases,” noted Rebecca Seigel, strategic director of Surveillance Information Services for the ACS. “You have very effective ways to prevent and treat heart disease, and we’ve had them for quite some time, whereas knowledge about the biology of cancer and how to prevent it and treat it is still in its infancy.”