Cancer Replaces Heart Disease As Leading Cause Of Death

Armen Hareyan's picture

Heart disease is no longer the leading cause of death in North Carolina. Mortality data for 2006 show that cancer is now the state's number-one cause of death; heart disease has dropped to second place for the first time in nearly 90 years.

Heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death in the nation as a whole, although other states have also seen cancer deaths move ahead of heart disease in recent years. According to the latest nationwide data available, seven states in the U.S. had more cancer deaths than heart disease deaths in 2004.

Heart disease death rates have been declining dramatically since the early 1980s. Cancer death rates have also been declining, but much more slowly. Since 1990, the overall death rate for heart disease in the state declined by more than 30 percent, compared to a decline in the cancer death rate of just under 2 percent.

The N.C. heart disease death rate is very similar to the U.S. rate. A national study of the reasons for the declines in coronary heart disease in the U.S. found that about half the decline was due to improvements in major risk factors (smoking, blood pressure, blood cholesterol, etc.) and about half was due to improvements in medical treatment for coronary disease.


Cancer accounted for 17, 267 deaths of the total of 74,419 resident deaths in North Carolina last year, or about 195 deaths per 100,000 people. Heart disease accounted for 17,189 deaths, or 194 deaths per 100,000 people.

The 2006 rankings of all other causes of death in the state remained unchanged from 2005. The number-three cause of death in 2006 was stroke (4,551 deaths), followed by chronic lower respiratory diseases (4,004 deaths); unintentional injuries not including motor vehicle injuries (2,425); Alzheimer's disease (2,258); diabetes (2,230); pneumonia and influenza (1,699); unintentional motor vehicle injuries (1,666); and kidney disease (1,631).

The leading causes of death differed by gender and by populations in North Carolina in 2006. The leading cause of death for males was cancer, but heart disease continued to be the leading cause of death for females. As in 2005, heart disease remained the leading cause of death for North Carolinians ages 65 and over. While cancer was the leading cause of death for non-Hispanics, whites and African Americans in 2006, heart disease remained the leading cause of death for American Indians. As in 2005, the leading cause of death for Hispanics was motor vehicle injuries.

"The decline in deaths from heart disease is good news," said State Health Director Leah Devlin, "especially since about half of the decrease appears to be linked to improvements in major risk factors.

"Most of those are things people can do something about themselves: quitting tobacco use, eating more fruits and vegetables, being more physically active, and avoiding second-hand smoke. Not only do those lifestyle changes reduce the chances of developing heart disease, they also reduce risk of developing diabetes, cancer and other potentially fatal conditions," she said.
"People can also greatly reduce their risk of dying from heart disease and cancer by getting the right health screenings on a regular basis--blood pressure checks, cholesterol checks, and cancer screenings. For women those screenings should include mammograms and Pap tests. Men should have prostate checks, and both men and women should talk to their doctors about other appropriate cancer screenings for colorectal, prostate and skin cancers," Devlin said.