NEW YORK – Cancer has overtaken heart disease as the No. 1 killer among Hispanics in the United States, and the rest of the country may be only a few years behind.

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.