While Americans have mostly conquered many of the diseases that used to kill thousands in the early 1900s, one disease in particular kills a lot more people today than it did a century ago.
Michigan State University research assistant Randy Olson has made a chart that compares common causes of death in 1900 to common causes of death today.
Cancer is now a leading cause of death in the U.S. In 1900, because of the lack of medical technology, it accounted for only a small portion of reported deaths.
Different versions of this chart have been published since the New England Journal of Medicine data was released in 2012, but this chart more clearly shows the broad differences in deaths from that time period compared to now.
As you can see, deaths from infectious diseases have gone way down compared to 1900, while the proportion of people dying from cancer has tripled:
Modern medicine has allowed doctors to more effectively treat many diseases that might have caused people to die in the early 20th century — hence the discrepancy in total deaths tallied. But recognizing cancer, in particular, has become a lot more common during the past century and it isn't as easily treatable.
A 2006 study published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences found that certain types of cancer — including skin, prostate, and breast cancer — are occurring more frequently in men and women. Changes in "exposure to risk factors such as sun or smoking, changes in how we classify cancer or the introduction of new screening or diagnostic tests" could affect this, according to the study.
One bright note: Cancer mortality rates started decreasing in 1991.
Heart disease accounted for a large portion of deaths in 1900, and that's still the case today. Overall, though, life spans are increasing.
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