Journal of Undergraduate Research


cardiovascular disease, cancer, leading cause of death, US


Life Sciences




In 1900 the three leading causes of death in the United States were pneumonia and influenza; tuberculosis; and gastritis, enteritis, and colitis.1 However, through a combination of improved sanitation, the discovery of antibiotics, and the advent of vaccination programs, deaths from infectious diseases subsided and soon gave way to chronic diseases.2 Shortly after the turn of the century, diseases of the heart became of the number one cause of death, and in the 1940s, cancer began consistently appearing at number two. Since then, heart disease and cancer have remained firmly entrenched as the number one and two causes of death, respectively.

Although the gap between heart disease and cancer mortality rates was initially substantial, in recent decades, it has been narrowing. While “diseases of the heart” remains the leading cause of death in the U.S. as a whole, the aggregate, national-level data can obscure what happens in smaller groups. For example, Jemal and colleagues showed that since 1999, cancer has been the leading cause of death for persons younger than 85.3 The purpose of the present study was to determine if national-level data obscure state-specific transitions from heart disease to cancer as the leading cause of death.

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