Cancer Perspectives

Cancer far outdistances heart disease when it comes to person-years of life lost


Mortality rates tell a strong story about the toll a disease takes but it’s just one story and a pretty basic one at that. Most would agree that a disease that kills people when they’re young or middle age is worse than one that kills people when they are older. A statistic that captures this commonly held view is person-years of life lost. There are a number of ways to calculate it. One way is to find the difference between the age at which someone dies from a disease (say, 50) and the number of additional years an average person of that age, race, and sex would have been expected to live had he not died (say, 75, which works out to 25 person-years of life lost). In this country, cancer far outdistances heart disease when it comes to person-years of life lost, which is a direct reflection of the fact that it is the number one cause of death among Americans between the ages of 40 and 79, while heart disease is number two in that age cohort. If you look at the types of cancer through the prism of person-years of life lost, there aren’t any great surprises. Lung cancer is the worst culprit — it is a common cause of cancer death and middle-aged people die from it, not just the elderly — followed by colorectal, breast, and pancreatic cancer.

Person-years of life lost due to major causes of death

All races, both sexes. In thousands per year.

Person-years of life lost due to cancer

All races, both sexes. In thousands per year.

Source: National Cancer Institute, Cancer Trends Progress Report, 2015

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