NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 29, 2005

Age-standardized death rates from all causes have decreased in the United States since the 1960s, but researchers say that may mask changes in death rates from specific conditions. In the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Ahmedin Jemal and three co-authors explore trends in death rates and the number of deaths from the six leading causes of mortality in the United States.

The six leading causes of death in the United States include heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), accidents and diabetes mellitus. Between 1970 and 2002:

  • The age-standardized death rate (per 100,000 population) from all causes combined decreased 32 percent from 1242.2 to 844.6 based on the year 2000 age standard; the largest percentage decreases were from heart disease (52 percent), stroke (63 percent) and accidents (41 percent).
  • The age-standardized death rate from all types of cancer combined increased from 1970 to 1990, and then decreased through 2002, yielding a net decline of 2.7 percent; in contrast, death rates doubled since 1970 for COPD and increased by 45 percent since 1987 for diabetes.
  • In 2002, the leading causes of death were heart disease among persons aged 75 years or older, cancer among persons aged 40 to 74 years and accidents among persons younger than 40 years old.

The authors say this illustrates the substantial and continuing progress in reducing the age-standardized death rate from heart disease, the lack of continuous progress for stroke and accidents and the increase in the age-standardized rates for COPD and diabetes.

Additionally, the reduction in age-standardized death rates, the best measure of progress against diseases, is not synonymous with reducing the number of deaths from these conditions. The number of deaths continues to increase because of population growth and aging, which has major implications for health care and health care costs.

Source: Ahmedin Jemal et al., "Trends in the Leading Causes of Death in the United States, 1970-2002," Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 294, No. 10, September 14, 2005.

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