What could be driving the drop in American deaths from leading killers like cancer, stroke, heart disease, and diabetes?

Recent research published in the journal JAMA saw that the mortality rate decreased to around 730 per 100,000 Americans in 2013 from 1,259 deaths per 100,000 in 1969. Death rates for all causes dipped by 43 percent.

Fatality rates for stroke (the highest with a 77 percent slash), heart disease, unintended injuries, cancer, and diabetes all declined, while the numbers for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) doubled during the trial.

The COPD statistics reflected varying smoking patterns between men and women, where deaths from the disease had begun decreasing among men and increasing among women, who started smoking and quitting later.

The researchers attributed the overall improvement in U.S. mortality rates to a decline in smoking, early diagnosis, and enhanced treatment of stroke, heart disease, and cancer. They particularly pointed to reduced deaths from cancer since the early 1990s as “an outcome of tobacco control efforts, as well as advances in early detection and treatment” that comprise healthcare, genetics, behavior, environment, and the social setting.

The drop in unintentional injuries, on the other hand, was linked to a decline in vehicle-related deaths.

In an accompanying editorial, however, epidemiologist Dr. James McGinnis from the National Academy of Medicine said that the research did not bring to light certain disturbing trends, such as the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease sharply rising and overtaking diabetes as the sixth leading killer, as well as the recent rise in diabetes mortality.

One trend that surfaced in the study was the decline in heart disease, stroke, and diabetes mortality from 2010 to 2013, which the researchers said may be reflective of the effects of increased obesity since the 1980s.

Weighing on the flattening death rates in the country, S. Jay Olshansky, a public health professor from the University of Illinois, echoed that obesity could indeed have a delayed effect similar to smoking. Tobacco use took decades to affect death rates, according to the study.

“You need to look at the health status of the living,” he said, warning that obesity today could be hitting younger generations in a way that will worsen mortality data.

Harvard economics professor David Cutler added that the obesity has also started affected mortality today, and instead focused on advances in medicines – such as statins for cholesterol – for the headway in reducing mortality rates.

John Haaga, acting director of the National Institute on Aging’s Division of Behavioral and Social Research, said the U.S. has a lot of catching up to do to get to where Canada, Germany, or France are when it comes to extending life expectancy.

America still lags behind other developed countries in this area, and recent research, he cited, showed that middle-age lower-income men are no more likely to reach old age than their father did.

Photo: Phalinn Ooi | Flickr 

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