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Early detection, decline in smoking led to 27% drop in US cancer death rate

The cancer death rate in the U.S. fell 27% in 2016 from its peak in 1991, representing more than 2.6 million deaths avoided, according to a new report from the American Cancer Society.

The nonprofit's Jan. 8 Cancer Statistics 2019 report said the decline is due to a reduction in smoking, as well as early detection and treatment efforts. For the most recent decade of 2007 to 2016, the cancer death rate fell by 1.4% per year in women and 1.8% in men, according to the report.

Lung cancer accounted for one-quarter of all cancer deaths, with death rates from the disease falling 48% among men from 1990 to 2016 and 23% among women from 2002 to 2016.

The lower reduction in deaths among women reflects the history of tobacco use, where women began smoking in large numbers later than men and were slower to quit, the report said.

Breast cancer among women and prostate cancer in men, along with colorectal cancer in both groups, accounted for another major portion of the deaths. The breast cancer death rate among women did, however, decline 40% from 1989 to 2016, while prostate cancer deaths dropped 51% between 1993 and 2016 in men. Early detection was a strong deterrent in breast cancer mortality, while prostate cancer patients witnessed a fall in screening due to high rates of over-diagnosis. In patients with colorectal cancer, death rates fell 53% from 1970 to 2016 due to increased screening and better treatments.

The report also highlighted racial disparities, noting a 14% higher cancer death rate in black patients than white patients in 2016. The disparity has dropped, however, from the 33% death rate in black people seen in 1993.

The report focused on children as well as adults aged 85 and older, which represents the fastest-growing population group in the U.S. Cancer was the second most common killer after accidents for children aged one to 14, with leukemia accounting for almost a third of all childhood cancers. While cancer incidence rates increased marginally, the death rate declined in this age group with the five-year relative survival rate improving to 83% from 2008 to 2014, compared to 58% seen between 1975 and 1977.

As cancer risk increases with age, the disease was recorded to be the second-leading cause of death among elderly patients, followed by heart disease. The number of people in this age group is expected to nearly triple from 6.4 million in 2016 to 19 million by 2060 and represents 8% of all expected cancer diagnoses.