America’s leading causes of death are changing, researchers report in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

The nation’s six leading causes of death — heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), accidents, and diabetes — were traced from 1970 to 2002.

During that time, these trends emerged:

—Stroke deaths: down 63 percent

—Heart disease deaths: down 52 percent

—Accident deaths: down 41percent

—Cancer deaths: down 2.7 percent

—Diabetes deaths: up 45 percent

—COPD deaths: up 102 percent

The researchers included Ahmedin Jemal, DVM, PhD, of the American Cancer Society.

Keeping Death at Bay

The trends are based on the age-standardized death rate. That’s the number of people who die per 100,000 people of different age groups (40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s or older).

The age-standardized death rate from all causes fell 32% from 1970 to 2002.

Of course, life doesn’t last forever. As America’s population grows and ages, the nation’s total number of deaths from those conditions continues to rise.

But those deaths are striking at older ages than before, write Jemal and colleagues.

Reasons for the Trends

The drop in four of the six leading causes of death shows “progress” in disease prevention and life extension, write the researchers.

Heart disease and stroke had bigger death rate drops than cancer. Deaths from all cancer types combined rose from 1970 to 1990, and then fell through 2002, write the researchers.

Stop-smoking efforts, speed limits, and seat belt laws probably helped more people live longer, write the researchers.

They note that America’s obesity problem could be boosting diabetes deaths, and long-term effects of smoking could explain why COPD (emphysema and chronic bronchitis) deaths more than doubled.

Jemal and colleagues list these leading causes of death in 2002:

—For adults younger than 40: accidents

—For people aged 40-74: cancer

—For people aged 75 and older: heart disease

A Long, Healthy Life

It may be possible to cut your risk of many of those deadly conditions by quitting smoking, getting in shape, eating healthfully, staying active, and getting recommended health screenings.

Check in with your doctor or health care provider to learn how to add years to your life and life to your years.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Jemal, A. The Journal of the American Medical Association, Sept. 14, 2005; vol 294: pp 1255-1259. News release, JAMA/Archives.