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Nov 19, 2015

Declines in U.S. Death Rates Have Slowed

Researchers measure progress on heart disease and other leading causes of death, and identify areas for improvement.

Mortality rates for the six leading causes of death in the U.S. have consistently fallen since the late sixties but progress has slowed, based on a review of U.S. vital statistics from 1969 through 2013.

Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, this study analyzed mortality trends for the six leading causes of death in the United States, including heart disease, cancer, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), stroke, injuries and diabetes. By mapping out mortality trends, researchers hoped to measure the progress we’ve made and identify areas for improvement.

Based on an analysis of U.S. death records from 1969–2013, researchers found that mortality rates for the top six causes of death have fallen by 43%. However, death rates differed significantly for each cause of death.

Between 1969 and 2013, death rates from stroke decreased by 77% and heart disease mortality fell by 68%. Mortality rates from injuries fell by 40%, while cancer and diabetes decreased by 17–18%. However, death rates from COPD more than doubled from 1969–2013. Authors note that the steady declines in death rates for the other leading causes of death have slowed in recent years.

Based on findings, it’s clear that COPD is a growing public health problem in the United States. While we’ve made strides in the treatment and prevention of heart disease and other leading causes of death, there’s still work to be done. Heart disease remains the No.1 killer of both men and women, and the burden of heart disease and stroke is an issue that requires continued focus. Efforts are also needed to reverse COPD mortality trends and further improve death rates from other top causes.

Experts also note that over the past four decades, the top public health issues and leading causes of death have changed.  Alzheimer’s disease has increased by two-thirds from 2000 to 2013, and depression has become a growing public health challenge in recent years. Therefore, experts highlight the need to address these new public health issues in addition to combatting the traditional leading causes of death in the United States.

Experts also point out that mortality rates are not the same for all U.S. adults. Minorities and low-income populations tend to face higher death rates than whites, and efforts are needed to address these health disparities. Through better diagnosis, treatment and prevention, experts hope to reduce mortality trends for all causes and eliminate health disparities in the U.S.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)?
  • COPD is a chronic disease that makes it hard to breathe. COPD is often caused by smoking and can cause symptoms like difficulty breathing, coughing and wheezing. Although COPD worsens over time, proper treatment and management helps improve outcomes and quality of life.  

  • What are health disparities?
  • Health disparities refer to differences in health outcomes or burdens of disease between groups of people. Health disparities can exist between different populations of race, sex, income, or even geographic location. In health care, the goal is to eliminate these differences so all individuals have the same ability to achieve good health.


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