How we die in Clark County

Cancer, heart disease, accidents among top killers locally

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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On the Web

A searchable database of all deaths of Clark County residents in 2010.

Everyone dies.

As Apple founder Steve Jobs said during a 2005 speech, “No one wants to die. … And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it.”

In Clark County, nearly 3,000 people died in 2010, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

Like most places across the country, cancer and heart disease were the leading causes of death for local residents. In 2010, 26 percent of Clark County deaths were attributed to cancer, 20 percent to heart disease. The top causes were followed by accidents and Alzheimer’s disease, both at 6 percent, and stroke at 5 percent.

But a deeper look at the numbers reveals that how one dies varies by age.

Infants, for example, are more likely to die from congenital malformations (physical defects) or short gestation and low birth weight. Young children in 2010 died from accidents, cancer and birth defects. Adults in their mid-40s and older mostly died from cancer and heart disease.

But the teens and adults in the middle -- those from 15 to 44 -- had more deaths due to preventable causes than health-related causes.

Accidents were the top cause of death for 15- to 34-year-olds. Cancer was the top cause of death for 35- to 44-year-olds, followed by suicide and accidents.

“A lot of these things are really preventable,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer.

Deaths in the 15- to 24-year-old group are the best example. About 48 percent (15 people) died in accidents and 32 percent (10 people) died by suicide. One person died by homicide, the third leading cause for that age group in 2010.

“That’s pretty typical. It’s not that unusual,” Melnick said. “It’s horrible, but it’s preventable.”

Even though unintentional injuries are at or near the top for many age groups, there are fewer accidental deaths than there were a decade or more ago. Seat belt laws, helmet laws, use of airbags and safer vehicles have helped keep the number of accidental deaths down, Melnick said.

Public education on the risks of tobacco use have helped bring down tobacco-related deaths. But, like other preventable causes, the efforts haven’t eliminated those deaths, Melnick said.

“We have a lot of work to do,” he said.

When it comes to preventing deaths, Melnick said it’s important to look beyond the obvious.

“We really need to take a look at the underlying causes and the facts that contribute to death,” he said.

That means looking at the factors that can cause cancer, heart disease, accidents, strokes and diabetes.

Tobacco topped the list of “actual causes of death” in 2000, followed by poor diet and physical inactivity, alcohol consumption, microbial agents (such as influenza, pneumonia, septicemia and tuberculosis) and toxic agents (such as air pollution, radon, lead in drinking water, and food contamination), according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2004.

The report examined the causes of death for U.S. residents in 2000. That year, heart disease was the No. 1 cause of death, cancer was No. 2, followed by strokes, lower respiratory diseases and accidents.

The researchers looked at contributors to those top official causes of death, calculated the impact and created a list of the top causes.

A look at the leading causes of death in Clark County in 2010 suggests that many of the causes nationally are similar locally, Melnick said.

Poor diet and physical inactivity, which can lead to obesity, and tobacco use are contributors to many cancer and heart disease deaths. They’re also a factor in strokes, emphysema and diabetes, Melnick said.

Preventing people from becoming overweight and obese, and continuing tobacco cessation efforts are important to reducing the number of related deaths, Melnick said. Those prevention efforts could include offering more healthy food alternatives to fast food, providing more open spaces for physical activity and launching public awareness campaigns about tobacco-use, he said.

“These causes of death don’t tell us everything,” Melnick said, “but they tell us a lot about what’s making us healthy or ill.”

Marissa Harshman: http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com; 360-735-4546.