Most Common Causes of Death

Learning Outcomes

  • Examine the leading causes of death in the United States and worldwide

The United States

In 1900, the most common causes of death were infectious diseases, which brought death quickly. Due to advances in healthcare and medicine over the years, this has changed, alongside an increase in average life expectancy. According to national data, chronic diseases, or those in which a slow and steady decline causes health deterioration, were the most common causes of death in the United States in 2016[1] In addition, accidents were more common than in previous years, often resulting in quick or unexpected death. How might this impact the way we think of death, the way we grieve, and the amount of control a person has over his or her own dying process, in comparison to the infectious diseases that were prevalent in 1900?

The 15 leading causes of death and number of deaths per category in 2016 in the United States are listed below.[2]

Table 1. Leading Causes of Death in the United States

Rank (2016) Cause of Death Percentage of total deaths 2016 Percentage of total deaths 2015
1 Heart disease 23.1 23.4
2 Cancer 21.8 22.0
3 Accidents 5.9 5.4
4 Chronic lower respiratory diseases 5.6 5.7
5 Strokes 5.2 5.2
6 Alzheimer’s Disease 4.2 4.1
7 Diabetes 2.9 2.9
8 Influenza and Pneumonia 1.9 2.1
9 Kidney Disease 1.8 1.8
10 Suicide 1.6 1.6

These data reflect both similarities and differences when compared with data from 2004. All of these top causes of death, with the exception of twoaccidents and suicidescontinue to be related to physical illnesses. Many are linked at least in part to lifestyle choices, including diet, exercise, and substance abuse. Similarly, many are preventable, to some extent, and some are avoidable if the proper actions are taken. Although these causes of death remain the same as they were in 2004, the order has changed for several of them by 2016. For example, accidents and unintentional injuries shifted from #5 in 2004 to #3 in 2016. Alzheimer’s disease became slightly more common, moving from #7 to #6, as did suicide, moving from #11 to #10. In contrast, strokes became slightly less common, moving from #3 to #5, along with diabetes, which moved from #6 to #7. Septicemia (blood disease) followed a similar trend, shifting from #10 to #11. These changes are likely attributable to a variety of factors, including lifestyle choices, social pressures and norms, and changes in responsibilities and obligations.

CoVid-19

The COVID‑19 pandemic, also known as the coronavirus pandemic, is an ongoing global pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‑19), caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS‑CoV‑2). The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020 and a pandemic on 11 March. As of 10 August 2020, more than 20.1 million cases of COVID‑19 have been reported in more than 188 countries and territories, resulting in more than 737,000 deaths; more than 12.3 million people have recovered.

Some estimates have Covid-19 becoming a top three leading cause of death in the United States in 2020, behind only heart disease and cancer.[3]

Deadliest Diseases Worldwide

The top 10 deadliest diseases in the world from 2015 are listed below, along with the percentage of deaths for which they were accountable. These reflect disease-related deaths only, and do not reflect deaths due to violence or suicide.[4] Notice there are several similarities between these and the top 15 causes of death in the United States described above.

  1. Heart disease – 15.5%
  2. Stroke – 11.1%
  3. Lower respiratory infections – 5.7%
  4. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – 5.6%
  5. Trachea, bronchus, and lung cancers – 3%
  6. Diabetes – 2.8%
  7. Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia – 2.7%
  8. Dehydration due to diarrheal diseases – 2.5%
  9. Tuberculosis – 2.4%
  10. Cirrhosis – 2.1%

Similar to the top 15 general causes of death listed above, these remained fairly consistent over the years, despite increases and decreases in each. Deaths caused by heart disease, for example, increased from 2000 by 2.8 million, and deaths caused by stroke increased by .5 million.[5] Lung disorders and cancers also rose by .5 million deaths, while diabetes rose by .6 million. Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia also accounted for an additional .3 million deaths. Decreases were seen in lower respiratory infections, which decreased by .2 million, as well as dehydration due to diarrheal diseases, which decreased by .8 million. Furthermore, tuberculosis deaths decreased by 1 million, and cirrhosis deaths decreased by .2 million.

While the top 15 causes of death presented previously were only for the United States, these top 10 deadliest diseases are for the entire world, including both developed and undeveloped nations. Differences in various factors including but not limited to economic status, access to medical care, belief systems, and natural resources play a major role in many of these causes of death, and tend to vary substantially between countries. This presents challenges for the interpretation of this list, making it difficult to determine the true prevalence of each in specific locations.

WAtch it

Watch this video to learn about another way to measure and compare life expectancies, known as years of life lost, which measures how many years short of the life expectancy people die. Looking at these data reveals some of the leading causes of death across the globe.

You can view the transcript for “The #1 reason people die early, in each country” here (opens in new window).

A Comparison of Death by Age in the United States

The major causes of death vary significantly among age groups. As you can see in Figure 1, congenital diseases and accidents are major causes of death among children, then accidents and suicides are the leading causes of death between ages 10 and 24. This changes again into middle and late-adulthood, as heart disease and cancer combined cause over 50% of deaths for those aged between 45 and 65.

Leading causes of death among different age groups in the United States. Younger age groups are more prone to accidents, while heart disease and cancer are larger causes of death in later years. The leading cause of death for three age groups (Ages 1 to 9, ages 10 to 24, and ages 25 to 44) are Unintentional Injuries at 31.4%, 41.4% and 33.2% respectively. The two leading causes of death for age 45 to 64 are cancer at 29.2% and heart disease at 20.9%. The two leading causes of death for age 65 and older are heart disease at 25.3% and cancer at 21.1%. Finally, the two leading causes of death for age 85 and up are heart disease at 28.9% and cancer at 12.1%.

Figure 1. Percent distribution of the 10 leading causes of death, by age group: United States, 2016.

Notice that unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death for the widest variety of ages, and recall from the previous section above that accidents were also found to have become increasingly common as causes of death within the United States population between 2000 and 2016.[6] These were the top causes of death for various age groups in the United States in the year 2016:

  • < 1 year – Congenital anomalies
  • 1 – 4 years – Unintentional Injury
  • 5 – 9 years – Unintentional Injury
  • 10 – 14 years – Unintentional Injury
  • 15 – 24 years – Unintentional Injury
  • 25 – 34 years – Unintentional Injury
  • 35 – 44 years – Unintentional Injury
  • 45 – 54 years – Malignant Neoplasms (cancer)
  • 55 – 64 years – Malignant Neoplasms (cancer)
  • 65 + – Heart Disease

The causes of death on this list resemble the causes presented in the previous sections, but the breakdown of these causes by age group highlights the true prevalence of each. Unintentional injury (accidents), for example, was found to be the third most common cause of death within the United States population, but it becomes apparent from this list that it is the most common for the widest range of age groups or developmental stages.[7] Heart disease was found to the be the most common cause of death overall, but this list shows that it is more restricted to one age group (65+) than other causes. Similarly, cancer was found to be the second most common cause of death within the United States population, but this list reveals that it is most prevalent for individuals in middle to late adulthood.

Death and The Media

Side by side bar chart showing the differences between three figures: the percent cause of death, the percent of google searches, and the percent of media coverage in the New York Times in 2016. Four causes of death are shown: Terrorism, Homicide, Cancer, and Heart disease. Terrorism represents less than 0.01% of deaths, 7.2% of google searches, and 35.6% of media coverage. Homicide represents 0.9% of deaths, 3.2% of google search, and 22.8% of media coverage. Cancer represents 29.5% of deaths, 37% of google searches, and 13.5% of media coverage. Heart Disease represents 30.2% of deaths, 2% of google searches, and 2.5% of media coverage. The image shows that while Cancer and Heart Disease are responsible for many more deaths than Terrorism or Homicide, the media covers Terrorism and Homicide much more often than it covers Cancer or Heart disease. The chart also shows that while more deaths are caused by heart disease than cancer, cancer takes up 37% of google searches for causes of death while searches about heart disease only amount to 2% of searches relating to causes of death.

Figure 2. Comparison: Percent Cause of Death, Percent of Google Searches, and Percent of Media Coverage by the New York (2016 Data).

Interestingly, the things that actually result in death are not often the things we hear about on the news.[8] Because of the availability heuristic—a cognitive shortcut in which people rely heavily on information that is most readily available in their mind, people may erroneously be more afraid of sensational deaths than death by more normal causes, such as heart disease.

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  1. Xu, J., Murphy, S. L., Kochanek, K. D., Bastian, B., & Arias, E. (2018). Deaths: Final data for 2016. National Vital Statistics Reports 67(5), 1-76.
  2. Heron M. Deaths: Leading causes for 2016. National Vital Statistics Reports; vol 67 no 6. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2018.
  3. USAFacts.org. (2020, July 14). Top causes of death in the United States in 2020: Heart disease, cancer and COVID-19. https://usafacts.org/articles/top-causes-death-united-states-heart-disease-cancer-and-covid-19/.
  4. World Health Organization. (2018). The top 10 causes of death. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/the-top-10-causes-of-death.
  5. World Health Organization. (2018). The top 10 causes of death. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/the-top-10-causes-of-death.
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Diseases and Conditions. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov.
  7. Xu, J., Murphy, S. L., Kochanek, K. D., Bastian, B., & Arias, E. (2018). Deaths: Final data for 2016. National Vital Statistics Reports 67(5), 1-76.
  8. Ritchie, Hannah (2019). Does the news reflect what we die from? Our World in Data. Retrieved from https://ourworldindata.org/does-the-news-reflect-what-we-die-from?linkId=68864855