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Alzheimer's, falls among unexpected killers

May 31, 2016
by Nicole Stempak, Senior Editor
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Look beyond the usual suspects of leading causes of deaths—heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease and stroke—and you'll find some unexpected killers.

States and regions can have historical patterns for causes of death, according to an analysis of 2014 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity is more prevalent in the South, and southern states see higher rates of heart-related deaths. Alcoholism has been a struggle on the American Indian reservations in the Southwest, and New Mexico and Arizona reported higher than average rates of alcoholic liver disease.

But researchers can’t understand why Alzheimer’s disease is a top cause of death in Washington and falls are a leading cause of death in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

“We’ve supposed that it’s due to cloudy weather, no sun and so no vitamin D, but there’s not been a good answer yet,” says Patrick Remington, an associate dean at the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin, to Stateline.

Research has yet to show correlation that would explain the data. But, as it turns out, the data may be part of the problem. Washington has a more rigorous method of collecting and verifying death data, and how the cause of death is recorded can vary between—and within—states.

“It seems entirely plausible that physicians or coroners in Washington could be coding as Alzheimer’s what other states might call pneumonia or something else,” says Francis Boscoe, a research scientist at the New York State Cancer Registry. “There are explicit rules for all this, but that does not mean they are all being followed the same way.”

Even so, states can use the findings to take action and help residents by raising public awareness, developing preventive programs and even re-examining coding practices. Here are the top 10 causes of death and the U.S. average rates per 100,000 population:

  1. Heart disease – 167
  2. Cancer – 161.2
  3. Lower respiratory disease – 40.5
  4. Accidental injury – 40.5
  5. Stroke – 36.5
  6. Alzheimer’s disease – 25.4
  7. Diabetes – 20.9
  8. Flu and pneumonia – 15.1
  9. Kidney disease – 13.2
  10. Suicide – 13


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