Fewer Iowans are dying from cancer, but a new report finds cancer has passed heart disease as the leading killer of Iowans. The annual “Cancer in Iowa” report is being released today by the State Health Registry of Iowa, based at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.

Dr. Charles Lynch, the registry’s medical director and a U-of-I epidemiology professor, says this is the first time cancer was named the leading cause of death in Iowa.

“This has been something that we talked about last year as potentially happening soon and we were able to identify this year with 2007 mortality data which was recently available to us,” Dr. Lynch says. “For the first time, age-adjusted rates for cancer exceeded those for heart disease.”

The numbers may appear somewhat contradictory, but Lynch says that’s because while cancer death rates fell in Iowa, there were even fewer deaths from heart disease.

“Between 1994 and 2007, cancer mortality rates declined 13%,” Lynch says. “People may say, ‘If it’s declining, then why has it surpassed heart disease?’ During the same time period, heart disease mortality rates declined 35%, so we’re making progress with both diseases.” He says cancer is strongly influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. Lifestyle changes like quitting smoking, healthy eating and regular exercise can be important in preventing cancer — and heart disease.

The report estimates 6,400 Iowans will die from cancer this year, a slight drop from last year. Still, Lynch says, more Iowans will be diagnosed with cancer this year. “The number of cancer cases is probably increasing slightly,” Lynch says. “We’re predicting that we’ll see 16,400 newly-diagnosed cancer cases in the state of Iowa this year. That’s up slightly.”

He attributes that to the aging of Iowa’s population as cancer traditionally strikes older people. Lynch says he’s encouraged by the numbers, which reflect people striving to lead healthier lifestyles, more screenings to find cancer early when it’s more treatable, and more effective methods of treatment.

“For many years now, the five-year survival rates and other ways of looking at survival for cancer have been increasing,” Lynch says. “This isn’t necessarily true for every type of cancer but we have been making substantial progress with the four major types of cancers that we see: lung, prostate, female breast cancer and colorectal cancer.” He says those four types of cancer account for about half of all new cancer cases in Iowa, as well as about half of all cancer deaths.

The online version of the report breaks down cancer rates in Iowa county-by-county. See the full report here: cph.uiowa.edu/shri and click on the “Publications” link