Many of Northwest Indiana's top killers lurk in our refrigerators, drive-thru lines and convenience stores.
Death from heart ailments, cancer and non-cancerous lung conditions rank one, two and three on the list of the top 10 causes of death in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, a Times computer-assisted investigation shows.
The Times analyzed more than a decade of government mortality records.
And the diseases aren't just claiming the old.
Data culled by the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation show between 2003 and 2010, nearly 9,000 potential years of life were lost by people perishing before the average life expectancy of 75. Nearly 80 percent of Indiana's 92 counties had a better premature-death rate than Lake County.
And The Times analysis showed one in five heart-related deaths in the three-county region claimed people who were 64 or younger. Of the cancer deaths, one in three people in the region were 64 or younger.
State and local health officials note most of the top killers in the region are preventable. They spread through the region not through infection but through the choices we make.
They claim victims like longtime Hobart resident Michael Back, who died of a heart attack at 35 after struggling with diabetes and an unhealthful diet, according to his family. They also include Crown Point's Donald Koppers, who died of lung cancer at 52 after smoking for 30 years.
Federal and state data show people in Northwest Indiana are more likely to engage in behaviors leading to -- and are more likely to die from -- heart ailments and cancer than the rest of the state and nation.
Much of it is about choice: what we put on our plates, whether we smoke and how frequently we exercise, if at all, medical experts who spoke with The Times agreed.
Thousands of deaths involved diseases for which there is no known cause or cure. That includes the 3,578 people in the three-county area who died of dementia and Alzheimer's disease over 12 years as the diseases slowly eroded brain cells, killing the victims long before they clinically died. Dementia and Alzheimer's disease is the region's fourth leading cause of death.
And sometimes it's a combination of genetics and poor choices that lead to premature deaths in the region, according to physicians and family members who have lost loved ones to the top killers.
Whatever the reasons, health experts said identifying and coming to grips with what's killing the region is key to developing plans to improve how we live and die in Northwest Indiana.
What's killing the region?
In most cases, the top 10 killers in Northwest Indiana are clinical diseases also plaguing the rest of the nation, The Times review found.
But in the cases of the top two killers -- heart ailments and cancer -- the region is outpacing the state and country.
A Times computer-assisted analysis of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cause-of-death data for Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties between 1999 and 2010 sifted through records of more than 84,000 deaths in that time period.
The investigation revealed:
* 23,841 people died from heart ailments, accounting for nearly 38 percent of all region deaths. Nationwide in the same time period, 27 percent of all deaths were heart-related.
* Cancer claimed 20,120 region lives, representing 28 percent of all deaths in that time period. The national percentage for cancer deaths was about 24 percent.
* About 8.3 percent of all deaths, or 7,014, resulted from other non-cancerous lung or pulmonary conditions, slightly better than the 9.5 percent nationwide.
* Alzheimer's disease and dementia rounded out the region's top four causes of death, with 3,578 people perishing from the degenerative brain diseases.
Framing the issues
Over the next three days, The Times will explore the top four causes of death in our region -- not just through data but also through the eyes of region families who have lost loved ones to these fatal ailments.
Local doctors, nurses and state health department officials also will weigh in on the causes of these diseases and what can be done to improve the numbers.
From heart disease to Alzheimer's, the series will explore not just what's killing the region, but also why and what we can do about it.