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Heart disease has long been the leading cause of death in the United States, but a study from BYU finds that cancer is forging ahead as the No.1 killer.

SALT LAKE CITY — Heart disease has long been the leading cause of death in the United States, but a study from BYU finds that cancer is forging ahead as the No.1 killer.

"The U.S. is experiencing an important epidemiologic transition," said BYU public health professor Evan Thacker. "Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the U.S. as a whole, but when we look at individual states, we see that so many have transitioned to cancer."

Thacker and Michael Harding, a public health undergraduate at BYU, along with others, studied leading causes of death across the country, and published their findings in Preventing Chronic Disease, an academic journal published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Beginning in the early 1900s, chronic diseases overtook acute infections as the leading causes of death — heart disease, specifically, from about 1910 to 2016, according to the study. Cancer, the research indicates, has been the second-leading cause of death in the U.S. from 1933 to 2016, based on age-standardized, annual state-specific mortality rates.

Cancer, the study states, takes people at younger ages, while heart disease largely affects those age 85 and older.

Researchers found that statistics started favoring cancer in 2000, when Minnesota became the first state where cancer beat heart disease as the leading cause of death. Other states followed in 2001, including Oregon, Montana and Alaska.

In 2014, 26 states had more cancer deaths than deaths related to heart disease, according to the study.

Heart disease inched up and was the top killer in 31 states in 2016, but cancer was still the leading cause of death in 19 states, the researchers found.

Thacker said it is only a matter of time before cancer takes over as the leading cause of death nationwide.

"The gradual shift is fascinating to see, but more research is needed to identify all of the reasons behind these shifts," he said.

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One possible reason cancer is more prevalent in some states might relate to smoking and tobacco use, as heart health increases within one to two years of quitting smoking and avoidance of cancer isn't seen for a decade, the research points out. A decrease in heart disease deaths, the team found, correlates with decreased tobacco smoking.

"Our longitudinal analysis of state-level data enriches our understanding of this epidemiologic transition toward cancer becoming the leading cause of death in the United States," the report states.

The results of the study aim to help state public health and medical efforts with disease prevention and control programs.