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Cancer Overtakes Heart Disease As Leading Cause Of Death In Hispanic Population

According to a recent report by the American Cancer Society, cancer has now surpassed heart disease as the No. 1 cause of death in the Hispanic population.

BY Roxanne Nelson
PUBLISHED June 19, 2013

Heart disease has long been the leading cause of death in the U.S., but for a segment of the population, that no longer seems to be the case. According to a recent report by the American Cancer Society (ACS), cancer has now surpassed heart disease as the No. 1 cause of death in the Hispanic population.

Although this news might appear dire,  it is not a cause for alarm, according to Rebecca Siegel, manager of surveillance information at the ACS and lead author of the report. "Death rates for heart disease are just declining more rapidly, especially in the Hispanic population," she says. "This is a reflection of age distribution. Hispanics are much younger than the general population."

The median age for Hispanics in the U.S. is 27, compared with 42 for non-Hispanic whites, and a large proportion of Hispanics who die from heart disease are older. Moreover, progress has been made in both preventing and treating heart disease. "The decline in heart disease mortality is a healthcare and public health success story," says Stephen Wyatt, dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Ky. "The trend line for cancer mortality is decreasing very slightly."

The rates of new cancer diagnoses and cancer deaths have actually been dropping in the Hispanic population. In fact, death rates for Hispanic men have been declining faster than other population groups in the U.S. During the past decade, cancer death rates dropped by about 2.3 percent per year among Hispanic men and by 1.4 percent per year for Hispanic women. In comparison, the average annual decrease for non-Hispanic whites during the same time period was 1.5 percent in men and 1.3 percent in women.

Overall, both incidence and death rates are lower for Hispanics compared with non-Hispanic whites. This is the case for all cancer types combined and for the most common types, including breast, colorectal, lung and prostate cancers. But some cancer types—such as cancers impacting the blood (acute lymphocytic leukemia), cervix, gallbladder, liver and stomach—have higher incidence and mortality rates among Hispanics.

"The treatment arsenal for cancer is just not as large as it is for heart disease, so it's a slower decline," Siegel says. "Cancer is more complicated, and for some cancer types, we know how to prevent and detect them early. But for others, we are still in the early stages."

According to Lisa Richardson, associate director for science in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, heart disease and cancer share a number of the same risk factors, although many people are unfamiliar with them. "They don't realize that they can lower their risk factors for cancer as well as for other conditions," she notes.

For example, a worrisome trend in the Hispanic community is the growing prevalence of obesity and inactivity, Siegel says. These are risk factors for many types of cancer and heart disease. "Almost half of Mexican women are obese, and diabetes is also a big concern," she adds.

Siegel goes on to say that in the coming years, the obesity epidemic could have an impact on cancer incidence and death rate among the Hispanic community.

This is why now is the time to stress prevention, Wyatt says. "Long-term, we must change the risk factor picture in the U.S.," he adds. "We must invest in prevention while we continue to fund basic research. Reducing smoking and obesity prevalence, increasing physical activity, ensuring proven cancer screening tools are fully utilized, and so on. Advances in these areas will not come easy, and they require evidence-based approaches." 

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