Changes in the Leading Cause of Death: Recent Patterns in Heart Disease and Cancer Mortality

Questions for Melonie Heron, Demographer and Lead Author on “Changes in the Leading Cause of Death: Recent Patterns in Heart Disease and Cancer Mortality

Q: How have trends in deaths from heart disease and cancer changed since 1950?

MH: Since 1950, the number of heart disease deaths generally increased (by 43%) to a peak in 1985, declined (by 23%) from 1985 through 2011, then increased again (by 3%) from 2011 through 2014. In contrast, the number of cancer deaths nearly tripled from 1950 through 2014.


Q: Is it inevitable that cancer will ultimately pass heart disease as the leading cause of death in the U.S.?

MH: Because of the declining gap between heart disease and cancer deaths, it was expected that cancer would overtake heart disease as the leading cause of death in the U.S. in the early 2010s. However, the reversal in trend for heart disease deaths in 2012 changed that. It remains to be seen whether the uptick in heart disease deaths will be sustained.


Q: Where do heart disease and cancer rank as leading causes of death at the state level, and how has that changed over the years?

MH: Heart disease was the leading cause of death for all U.S. states, with cancer as the second leading cause. In 1990, Alaska became the first state to experience a switch in ranks between these two causes. In 2000, Minnesota experienced the same switch. As of 2014, there are now 22 states with cancer as the leading cause of death.


Q: How have heart disease and cancer changed as leading causes of death among different race/ethnic groups over time?

MH: For the non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic black populations, heart disease has consistently been the leading-cause of death, with cancer as the second leading cause. That remained the case in 2014. However, for the non-Hispanic Asian or Pacific Islander and Hispanic populations, cancer deaths have been increasing more than heart disease deaths. Cancer replaced heart disease as the leading cause of death for the non-Hispanic API population in 2000, and for the Hispanic population in 2009.


Q: What do you think is the most significant finding is in your new study?

MH: Despite a narrowing of the gap between heart disease and cancer deaths over time, especially since the 1980s, heart disease remained the leading cause of death for the total U.S. population and for the non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic black populations in 2014. This was due, in large part, to a recent increase in heart disease deaths. However, in the non-Hispanic API and Hispanic populations, as well as in 22 states, the mortality burden of cancer has surpassed that of heart disease such that cancer is now the leading cause of death.

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