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Cancer closing in on heart disease as nation’s No. 1 killer

The leading cause of death in the U.S. for 103 of the past 104 years – heart disease – remains the reigning champion, a new federal report showed this week. But it is now being seriously challenged for the top spot by cancer.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control on Wednesday released a “Leading Cause of Death” report that updates the nation’s mortality statistics through the end of 2014. Researchers are now working on raw data from 2015.
Wednesday’s report contains two highlights in particular: Heart-disease deaths are on a two-year incline, after falling from 1968 to 2012, and cancer now outpaces heart disease as the top cause of death in more states than ever.
In 2000, there were only two states where cancer was the No. 1 killer. By 2014, there were 22 such states.
Robert Anderson, chief of the CDC’s mortality statistics branch, told AMI Newswire that the report is referring to numbers of deaths, not death rates – an important distinction.
“The actual risk of dying of heart disease, and cancer as well, has been coming down – it’s the number of deaths from cancer that have been going up,” he said. “That’s mainly because of the aging of the population. So what we’re seeing with heart disease is not an increase in risk as much as a slowing down of the decline where the aging of the population is not being offset any longer.”
Heart disease has been the leading cause of U.S. deaths every year since 1910, except for 1918 due to a Spanish flu epidemic that year, Anderson said. So Wednesday’s report contained few surprises for researchers.
However, he said he never would have expected cancer deaths to approach those of heart disease, but now foresees cancer overtaking the top spot in the near future.
“I’ve been here for 20 years and there’s always been a huge gap between the two,” he said. “I couldn’t have expected we would see this kind of convergence … I think (cancer) probably will overtake heart disease but it’s hard to tell exactly when.”
Rebecca Siegel, strategic director of surveillance information for the American Cancer Society, also told AMI that the new statistics should be read with caution, because there are actually spots of good news.
The pace of heart-disease deaths has declined so dramatically that it has now overcome the factor that the U.S. population continues to be older than ever before. The heart-disease death decline has slowed, too, while cancer-death rates have continued to drop by 1 to 2 percent since 1990, Siegel said.
“For cancer, we’re making continuous progress,” she said. “Even though the number of deaths is still increasing, rates are decreasing. So there’s positive progress for both diseases … It’s very important to realize that this is not happening because there is not progress being made in the fight against cancer.”
 Assessing researchers’ closeness to a cure for cancer is difficult because of the nature of the disease, Siegel said. There are more than 100 different types of cancer, for example, and variances in potential causes, treatments, symptoms and detection.
“There’s no simple answer,” she said. “There’s still a lot of work to do in understanding the biology of cancer and learning better ways to prevent and treat it.”
Wednesday’s CDC report showed that while heart disease is still the leading cause of death for non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic black populations in the U.S., cancer is now the top killer for Hispanic, non-Hispanic Asian and Pacific Islander populations.