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Cancer surpasses heart disease as the leading cause of death in California and 21 other states

Cancer has surpassed heart disease as the leading cause of death in California and 21 other states, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That total is in stark contrast to the situation at the start of this century, when only two states — Alaska and Minnesota — lost more people to cancer than heart disease.

And it’s a huge departure from the situation in the 1950s, when the number of heart disease deaths was 2½ times bigger than the number of cancer fatalities.

Nationwide, heart disease still edges out cancer as the top killer of Americans. In 2014, 614,348 U.S. residents died of heart disease, compared with 591,699 who succumbed to cancer, according to the CDC tally of death certificates from the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

That gap is small, but it was even smaller in 2012. Demographers predicted that cancer would overtake heart disease within a few years.

Then heart disease, which had been on the decline since the early 1990s, began to tick up. Between 2011 and 2014, the number of deaths attributable to heart disease rose 3%, compared with a 2.6% increase for cancer.

Among some groups of Americans, cancer now claims more lives than any other cause of death. 

Asian Americans were the first to cross that threshold, in 2000. That year, the National Vital Statistics System recorded 9,069 cancer deaths, compared with 8,949 for heart disease. 

Since then, the number of annual cancer fatalities among Asian Americans has grown by 79.6% (to 16,292), while annual heart disease fatalities rose a more modest 45.5% (to 13,021).

Latinos followed in 2009, with 29,935 cancer deaths and 29,611 heart disease deaths that year. By 2014, that margin had widened to 36,447 cancer deaths and 34,021 heart disease fatalities.

Alaska became the first state to see cancer edge out heart disease as the leading cause of death, in 1990. Minnesota joined the club about a decade later.

Since 2000, 20 more states have followed suit. They are: Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

The report was published Wednesday by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

karen.kaplan@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @LATkarenkaplan and "like" Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

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