Context: The decrease in overall death rates in the United States may mask changes in death rates from specific conditions.
Objective: To examine temporal trends in the age-standardized death rates and in the number of deaths from the 6 leading causes of death in the United States.
Design and setting: Analyses of vital statistics data on mortality in the United States from 1970 to 2002.
Main outcome measure: The age-standardized death rate and number of deaths (coded as underlying cause) from each of the 6 leading causes of death: heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, accidents (ie, related to transportation [motor vehicle, other land vehicles, and water, air, and space] and not related to transportation [falls, fire, and accidental posioning]), and diabetes mellitus.
Results: The age-standardized death rate (per 100,000 per year) from all causes combined decreased from 1242 in 1970 to 845 in 2002. The largest percentage decreases were in death rates from stroke (63%), heart disease (52%), and accidents (41%). The largest absolute decreases in death rates were from heart disease (262 deaths per 100,000), stroke (96 deaths per 100,000), and accidents (26 deaths per 100,000).The death rate from all types of cancer combined increased between 1970 and 1990 and then decreased through 2002, yielding a net decline of 2.7%. In contrast, death rates doubled from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease over the entire time interval and increased by 45% for diabetes since 1987. Despite decreases in age-standardized death rates from 4 of the 6 leading causes of death, the absolute number of deaths from these conditions continues to increase, although these deaths occur at older ages.
Conclusions: The absolute number of deaths and age at death continue to increase in the United States. These temporal trends have major implications for health care and health care costs in an aging population.