Political cancer reflects mortality

Just this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report about the leading causes of death for the general U.S. population. The report authored by Melonie Heron, Ph.D., in the CDC Division of Vital Statistics, listed heart disease, cancer and respiratory diseases as the leading causes of death in 2010 (most recent year with complete data) for the general population, while birth defects and low birth weight were the top two causes of death for infants.

According to the report in 2010, the 10 leading causes of death were, in rank order: diseases of heart; malignant neoplasms; chronic lower respiratory diseases; cerebrovascular diseases; accidents (unintentional injuries); Alzheimer’s disease; diabetes mellitus; Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis; influenza and pneumonia; and intentional self-harm (suicide). These 10 causes accounted for 75 percent of all deaths occurring in the United States. Perhaps most shockingly, the top two causes, heart disease and malignant neoplasms (cancer), accounted for 47.5 percent of all deaths in 2010.

Heron also notes that differences in the rankings are evident by age, sex, race and Hispanic origin.

Looking at age, the leading cause of death for persons under 44 years of age was accidental injuries. This one fact says something startling about risk taking and unsafe behavior in younger people. While we’ve all heard the term “youthful excess” such excesses shouldn’t be lethal. That they are indicates we have a lot of work to do as a nation in guarding our youth.

For both men and women, heart disease and cancer ranked as the first and second leading causes of death, respectively. The two causes accounted for 49.4 percent of all deaths to men and 45.6 percent of all deaths to women in 2010. Other causes with an identical rank for both sexes in 2010 were chronic lower respiratory diseases and kidney disease.

Men and women diverge in the ranking of other causes of death. In 2010, unintentional injuries were the third leading cause of death for males, accounting for 6.2 percent of deaths in this group, but the sixth leading cause for females, accounting for 3.6 percent of deaths. Here again, we should give pause to reflect on the behavior that prompts these statistics. Similarly, we need to change our cultural priorities with regard to diet, exercise, consumption of alcohol and smoking.

The 10th leading cause of death, intentional self harm (suicide), reflects a fact about our nation that we have worked hard for generations to ignore: We have inadequate mental health care. Moreover, we have allowed efforts to derail any serious Congressional efforts to expand meaningful mental health care provision.

To the degree that Congress has allowed itself to notice this gulf in coverage, it has largely been as part of a plan to thwart gun control in the wake of several recent mass killings. Combine this with the fact that so many returning veterans need these services in order to readjust to life away from war, this institutionalized resistance creeps toward a national shame.

Of course, we didn’t get this way overnight, and we won’t fix things overnight, either. Even so, grim laundry lists such as these provide an annual reminder that we are failing large sectors of the population. When we have political efforts that routinely flout the science that doesn’t fit with preconceived social, political and economic order, enumerations such as these should come as little surprise. Maybe we can’t fully beat cancer, but we should be able to beat politics.