The change is not exactly cause for alarm. Death rates for both cancer and heart disease have been dropping for Hispanics and everyone else. It's just that heart disease deaths have fallen faster, largely because of improved treatment and prevention, including the development of cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Overall, cancer will probably replace heart disease as the nation's top cause of death in the next 10 years, said Rebecca Siegel of the American Cancer Society, lead author of a study reporting the new findings. Government health statisticians think the crossover point could be reached as early as this year, or at least in the next two or three years.
The reason it has already happened among Hispanics is that they are younger on average than non-Hispanic whites and blacks. And cancer tends to kill people earlier in life than heart disease, for decades the nation's top cause of death.
The shift could bring about a change in disease-prevention efforts, government spending priorities and people's attitudes.
"We've been so focused on heart disease mortality for so long. ... This may change the way people look at their risk," said Robert Anderson, who oversees the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control branch that monitors death statistics.
The study is being published in the September/October issue of a cancer society publication, CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.
Cancer society researchers looked at federal death data for 2009 and found that 29,935 Hispanics died of cancer and 29,611 of heart disease. It was the first year in which cancer deaths surpassed heart disease in that ethnic group.
Cancer is also the leading cause of death for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. And it is now the leading killer in 18 states, according to 2009 numbers from the CDC.
Hispanics are the nation's largest and fastest-growing major ethnic group, and many of them are young immigrants from Mexico. Most heart disease deaths are in people 65 and older. The vast majority of Hispanics in the U.S. are under 55.
The story is different in Mexico, which has an older population. There, diabetes is the biggest killer, with cancer No. 2, according to 2009 statistics from the Pan American Health Organization.
Interestingly, none of the states where cancer has overtaken heart disease is in the Southwest, which has large Hispanic populations. Instead, most are in the nation's northern tier, including Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the four states of upper New England.
Cancer Society journal: http://cacancerjournal.org