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The Daily Tar Heel

Cancer approaches heart disease as leading cause of death in U.S.

In 2014, heart disease accounted for 614,348 deaths across the nation whereas cancer accounted for 591,699 deaths, according to a data brief released by the National Center for Health Statistics this August.

Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics, said although cancer deaths have been increasing, the risk of dying from cancer has been declining.

“The reason why the number is going up and the risk is going down is because we have an aging population,” he said.

The gap between heart disease and cancer deaths has narrowed since 1950, when heart disease accounted for about 300,000 more deaths than cancer, and researchers expected cancer to surpass heart disease as the leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2010, Anderson said.

But a three percent increase in deaths from heart disease between 2011 and 2014 kept heart disease as the leading cause of death in the nation.

In North Carolina, lung cancer has been the leading cause of cancer deaths for over two decades, accounting for over 27,000 deaths between 2008 and 2012.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services launched an initiative — the North Carolina Comprehensive Cancer Control Plan — in 2014 to address the increasing cancer mortality rates in the state.

Death rates from lung and other cancers are still elevated because the number of senior citizens in the state continues to climb, Anderson said.

"(There are) more older people year to year,” he said. “And of course old people have a higher risk of dying.”

Lung cancer death rates in North Carolina have been slowly declining — from 2006 to 2010, rates decreased 2.9 percent per year in men and 1.4 percent per year in women.

Anderson said tobacco use has been decreasing in the U.S. and is associated with these declines.

“If you look at that and correlate it with smoking patterns, you see a fairly strong correlation,” he said.

Debi Nelson, director of the N.C. Cancer Prevention and Control Branch at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said advancements in screening technology have also contributed to the declining cancer death rate.

“When cancers are caught early, many people will survive their cancers and live longer,” she said.

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Nelson said cancer screenings have become increasingly affordable in North Carolina thanks to the Affordable Care Act.

“Better cancer detection means more people are being diagnosed who would have otherwise gone unnoticed,” Nelson said.