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How cancer could emerge as the leading cause of death in the U.S.

Cancer could surpass heart disease as the leading cause of death among Americans this year, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than 614,000 Americans died of heart disease in 2014, the last year of available data, the CDC said. That same year, nearly 592,000 died of cancer.

But in 2016, almost 601,000 people may die as a result of cancer, while more than 597,000 Americans may die from heart disease, based on U.S. population size and age, and the number of deaths from these chronic diseases, said Hannah Weir, a senior epidemiologist at the CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, as well as the study’s lead author who based her projections on four decades of death in the United States.

Several states already report that cancer is the predominant cause of death, according to Weir, and these data help health policymakers anticipate need for years to come.

“It’s going to help us plan for future health care needs for the U.S. population,” she said, and to answer questions like, “Do we have enough doctors in hospital to meet the needs for future cancer patients?”

One reason why these numbers may balloon is that a large cohort of baby boomers is growing older, and with age comes a heightened risk of dying from heart disease or cancer, Weir said. The group of Americans age 65 is projected to grow slightly faster than the overall population.

For years, health researchers have been on the lookout for the moment cancer becomes the single most lethal illness, and the CDC’s findings are consistent with recent studies. Robert Anderson, who oversees the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics, told the NewsHour in August that his staff “thought we would have already seen a crossover.”

“The death rates for cancer and heart disease are both coming down,” he said. “They’re just coming down a lot faster for heart disease.”

But one limitation for the CDC study is that it can’t reflect emerging advances in prevention and treatment, Weir said: “Our models really don’t capture what’s going on immediately.”

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