Research Shows Cancer Likely to Become More Deadly than Heart Disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Americans, but new research shows that cancer is likely to surpass heart disease as the number one killer in 2020, especially in higher-income populations. Mortality rates for both heart disease and cancer overall have been declining, but the decline is greater for heart disease.1,2

What does the data show?

In a study funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparity, researchers looked at death records in the U.S. from 2003 to 2015 for all adults aged 25 years or older. They also looked at the average household income by county as a way to gauge socioeconomic status. Counties in the lowest-income group had a mean income of $31,959, while counties in the highest-income group had a mean income of $63,360.1

While heart disease was the leading cause of death in 79% of U.S. counties in 2003, it dropped to the leading cause of deaths in 59% of counties in 2015. Cancer was the leading cause of death in 21% of counties in 2003, and it grew to to be the leading cause of death for 41% of counties in 2015.1

Changes in mortality not the same for all income levels

However, the mortality rates from cancer and heart disease differ when looking at income levels. Heart disease is more likely to be the cause of death in lower income counties. In addition, lower income counties have not seen same decreases in mortality rates that have been seen in higher income counties.1,2

Heart disease still highest in some racial groups

In the lowest-income counties, heart disease was still the leading cause of death across all racial or ethnic groups. The transition from heart disease to cancer was occurring more in Asian American, Hispanic/Latino, and non-Hispanic whites. Deaths in Blacks and American Indian/Alaska Natives are still more likely to be due to heart disease.2

Differences in income and education levels may affect cause of death

The researchers noted the importance of highlighting the differences in socioeconomic and ethnic groups. Ignoring these differences could disregard the needs of these groups and could further complicate the health disparities that exist. Major risk factors for heart disease, including smoking, obesity, and diabetes, are more prevalent in groups with lower education levels.2

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