By Robert Preidt
WEDNESDAY, Jan. 25, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- The number of Americans who die from diabetes is much higher than previously believed, according to a new study.
The research, based on federal government data, found that diabetes causes 12 percent of deaths in the United States. That makes it the third-leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer, researchers said.
"Another way of saying that is, if diabetes were eliminated as a disease process, the number of deaths would decline by 12 percent," said study author Samuel Preston, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
"There has been only one similar, earlier research effort, and it was based on data from the 1980s and early '90s. It showed deaths attributable to diabetes amounted to roughly 4 percent of total deaths," he said in a university news release.
Data for the new study came from the U.S. National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) and the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Both are conducted annually, which gives researchers more current figures.
From this, the researchers found that Americans with diabetes have about a 90 percent higher death rate than those without diabetes. They noted that diabetes as the "underlying cause of death" had been significantly underreported in the United States.
"There is only one underlying cause of death on a death certificate," Preston said. But, "diabetes is not listed as frequently as it is involved in the death of individuals."
Study co-author Andrew Stokes is a demographer at Boston University. He said: "When we monitor trends in the health of populations and we look at the mortality statistics, some major threats to U.S. mortality and life expectancy stand out, like drug and alcohol poisonings and suicide. Diabetes didn't."
The study was published Jan. 25 in the journal PLOS One.
The number of Americans with diabetes rose nearly 300 percent between 1980 and 2014, from 5.5 million in 1980 to almost 22 million, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
"American life expectancy has been growing at a very slow rate for the past decade or so, even decreasing slightly in 2015," Preston said.
"It hasn't yet been established statistically, but it's fairly likely that obesity and diabetes together are an important factor in this slowdown," Preston added. "We believe that these estimates will prove useful in helping to more precisely identify their roles."
Stokes said, "What our results point to is the need for strategies at the population level to combat the epidemics of obesity and diabetes. We need something on a population scale because it's a major issue. It's not an issue that's confined to certain subsets of the population."