Over the last 5 years, the main causes of death in the U.S. have remained fairly consistent.
The most recent data (2014) (resource no longer available at www.cdc.gov) reveals that annually there were 2,626,418 deaths registered in the U.S., which equates to:
- An age-adjusted death rate, which accounts for the aging population, of 823.7 deaths per 100,000 U.S. standard population
- A life expectancy at birth of around 78.8 years
Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for almost 1 in every 4 deaths, and affecting significantly more men than women.
Death rates below are calculated on an annual basis per 100,000 of estimated population. Age-adjusted rates are used to compare relative mortality risks among groups and over time. Below, we expand on each of the causes of death and ask whether they can be prevented.
1: Heart disease
- Deaths: 614,348
- Rate: 192.7
- Age-adjusted rate: 167.0
- Percentage of total deaths: 23.4 percent
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. and also the leading cause of death worldwide. More than half of the deaths that occur as a result of heart disease are in men.
Heart disease is a term used to describe several conditions, many of which are related to plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries.
The key to preventing death from heart disease is to protect the heart and know the warning signs and symptoms of a heart attack.
Major warning signs and symptoms of heart attack
Some of the following signs and symptoms can materialize before a heart attack:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Pain or discomfort in the upper body, arms, neck, jaw, or upper stomach
- Cold sweats
Protecting the heart
- Follow instructions to ensure safe use of medications and any OTC drugs
- Eating a diet that is low in salt, refined sugars, total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol and high in fresh fruits and vegetables
- Exercise regularly (at least 150 minutes a week)
- Avoid excessive intake of alcohol
- Quit smoking
- Take steps to reduce stress levels, or get help with stress management
- Deaths: 591,699
- Rate: 185.6
- Age-adjusted rate: 161.2
- Percentage of total deaths: 22.5 percent
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S.
Cancer is a group of diseases characterized by the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. If the spread is not controlled, it can interfere with essential life-sustaining systems and result in death.
Anyone can develop cancer, but the risk of most types of cancer increases with age, and some individuals have higher or lower risk due to differences in exposure to carcinogens (such as from smoking) and as a result of genetic factors.
Lung cancer accounts for more deaths than any other cancer in both men and women.
Estimated cancer-related deaths for 2016
Leading causes of death from cancer for males:
- Lung and bronchus - 85,920
- Prostate - 26,120
- Colon and rectum - 26,020
Leading causes of death from cancer for females:
- Lung and bronchus - 72,160
- Breast - 40,450
- Colon and rectum - 23,170
Can cancer be prevented?
A substantial proportion of cancers are preventable, and all cancers caused by cigarette smoking and heavy use of alcohol could be prevented.
The World Cancer Research Fund has estimated that up to one-third of cancer cases that occur in economically developed countries like the U.S. are related to being overweight, obese, inactive (sedentary), or poor nutrition. These are all preventable.
Some cancers are related to infectious agents such as human papillomavirus (HPV), hepatitis B virus (HBV), hepatitis C virus (HCV), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) - these may be prevented through behavioral changes and use of protective vaccinations and antibiotic treatments.
Many of the more than 3 million skin cancer cases that are diagnosed annually could be prevented by protecting skin from excessive sun exposure and avoiding indoor tanning.
3: Chronic lower respiratory disease
- Deaths: 147,101
- Rate: 46.1
- Age-adjusted rate: 40.5
- Percentage of total deaths: 5.6 percent
CLRD is the third leading cause of death in the U.S.
Chronic lower respiratory disease (CLRD) is a collection of lung diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related issues, including primarily chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) but also bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma.
Warning signs and symptoms of COPD
Signs and symptoms of COPD may include:
- Difficulty breathing (breathlessness), especially when active
- A persistent cough with phlegm
- Frequent chest infections
How can COPD be prevented?
In the U.S., tobacco smoke is a key factor in the development and progression of COPD, although exposure to air pollutants in the home and workplace, genetic factors, and respiratory infections also play a role.
Smoking is a primary risk factor of COPD, and approximately 80 percent of COPD deaths can be attributed to smoking.
To prevent COPD:
- Quit smoking
- Avoid second-hand smoke
- Avoid air pollution
- Avoid chemical fumes
- Avoid dust
- Deaths: 136,053
- Rate: 42.7
- Age-adjusted rate: 40.5
- Percentage of total deaths: 5.2 percent
Accidents are the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S.
Accidents, also referred to as unintentional injuries, are at present the 4th leading cause of death in the U.S. and the leading cause of death for those aged1-44.
Possible prevention measures
By their very natures, accidents are unintentional, but there are many ways to reduce the risk of accidental death and injury. Some key components of accident prevention include those focused on road safety, such as seat-belt use, and improved awareness of the dangers of driving while intoxicated.
- Deaths: 133,033
- Rate: 41.7
- Age-adjusted rate: 36.5
- Percentage of total deaths: 5.1 percent
Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S.
Cerebrovascular diseases are conditions that develop as a result of problems with the blood vessels that supply the brain. Four of the most common types of cerebrovascular disease are:
Every year more than 795,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke; risk of having a stroke varies with race, ethnicity, and geography; it also increases with age. However, in 2009, 24 percent of people hospitalized for stroke were younger than 65 years.
The highest death rates from stroke in the U.S. occur in the southeast.
Signs and symptoms of stroke
During a stroke, every second counts. Fast treatment can reduce the brain damage that stroke can cause. Signs and symptoms of stroke include sudden:
- Numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body
- Confusion, trouble speaking or difficulty understanding speech
- Trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or lack of coordination
- Severe headache with no known cause
Call 9-1-1 immediately if any of the above symptoms are experienced.
If you think someone may be having a stroke, act F.A.S.T. and do the following simple test:
- F - Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
- A - Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
- S - Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?
- T - Time: If you observe any of these signs, call 9-1-1 immediately
Note the time when any symptoms first appear. Some treatments for stroke only work if given within the first 3 hours after symptoms appear.
Do not drive to the hospital or let someone else drive you. Call an ambulance so that medical personnel can begin life-saving treatment on the way to the emergency room.
How can stroke be prevented?
High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking are major risk factors for stroke. Several other medical conditions and unhealthy lifestyle choices can increase your risk for stroke.
Although you cannot control all of your risk factors for stroke, you can take steps to prevent stroke and its complications.
Stroke prevention measures include:
- Eating a healthy diet
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Getting enough exercise
- Not smoking
- Limiting alcohol use
- Managing cholesterol levels
- Controlling blood pressure
- Managing diabetes
- Managing heart disease
- Taking medicine correctly
- Talking with a health care team
- Staying hydrated
6: Alzheimer's disease
- Deaths: 93,541
- Rate: 29.3
- Age-adjusted rate: 25.4
- Percentage of total deaths: 3.6 percent
Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.
Dementia is an overall term for diseases and conditions characterized by a decline in cognitive function that affects a person's ability to perform everyday activities.
Dementia is caused by damage to nerve cells in the brain. As a result of the damage, neurons can no longer function normally and may die. This, in turn, can lead to changes in memory, behavior, and the ability to think clearly.
Alzheimer's disease is just one type of dementia, with vascular dementia causing similar symptoms but resulting from changes to the blood vessels that supply circulation to the brain. For people with Alzheimer's disease, the damage and death of neurons eventually impair the ability to carry out basic bodily functions such as walking and swallowing.
People in the final stages of the disease are bed-bound and require round-the-clock care. Alzheimer's is ultimately fatal.
An estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease currently, including approximately 200,000 individuals younger than 65 who have younger-onset Alzheimer's.
Alzheimer's disease is one of the most expensive conditions in the nation and is the only cause of death in the top 10 that cannot currently be cured, prevented, or slowed. In 2015, the cost of Alzheimer's in the U.S. is estimated at $226 billion.
Despite these already staggering figures, Alzheimer's is expected to cost an estimated $1.2 trillion (in today's dollars) in 2050. This is, in part, because of improved rates of early detection, treatment, and prevention of other major causes of death, meaning that more people survive into older age (when the risk of Alzheimer's disease is greatest).
Signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's disease
The following are common signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life
- Challenges in planning or solving problems
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, work or in leisure
- Confusion with time or place
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
- New problems with words in speaking or writing
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
- Decreased or poor judgment
- Withdrawal from work or social activities
- Changes in mood and personality, including apathy and depression
Can Alzheimer's be prevented?
As the exact cause of Alzheimer's disease is still unknown, there is no way to prevent the condition. However, there are some steps you can take that may help to delay the onset of dementia.
Alzheimer's is thought to develop as a result of complex interactions among multiple factors, including age, genetics, environment, lifestyle, and coexisting medical conditions.
Reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease
Many of the factors that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (disease of the heart or blood vessels) have also been connected to an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. In fact, results of autopsies have revealed the some 80 percent of people with Alzheimer's have cardiovascular disease.
The risk of developing cardiovascular disease, as well as stroke and heart attacks, may be reduced by improving cardiovascular health using steps such as:
- Stopping smoking
- Avoiding excess alcohol intake
- Eating a healthy balanced diet
- Regular exercise
- Checking and managing blood pressure through regular health tests
- Carefully managing diabetes or prediabetes, including taking appropriate medications and following dietary and lifestyle recommendations
Staying mentally active
Evidence suggests rates of dementia are lower in mentally, physically, and socially active people. It may be possible to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia by:
- Writing for pleasure
- Learning foreign languages
- Playing musical instruments
- Taking part in adult education courses
- Playing sports
- Deaths: 76,488
- Rate: 24.0
- Age-adjusted rate: 20.9
- Percentage of total deaths: 2.9 percent
Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S.
Diabetes mellitus is a disease in which the body is no longer able to carefully control blood glucose, leading to abnormally high levels of blood glucose (hyperglycemia). Persistently elevated blood glucose can cause damage to the body's tissues, including the nerves, blood vessels, and tissues in the eyes.
Most of the food we eat is turned into glucose, a simple sugar, for our bodies to use for energy. The pancreas, an organ situated near the stomach, makes a hormone called insulin that helps glucose get into the cells of our bodies. When a person has diabetes, the body either does not make enough insulin or cannot use insulin as well as it should. This causes sugar to build up in the blood.
Diabetes can cause serious health complications including heart disease, blindness, kidney failure, and the need for amputation of the lower extremities or limbs.
Type 1 diabetes, which was previously called insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) or juvenile-onset diabetes, accounts for about 5 percent of all diagnosed cases of diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes, which was previously called non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) or adult-onset diabetes, accounts for about 90-95 percent of all diagnosed cases of diabetes.
Warning signs and symptoms of diabetes
People who think they might have diabetes must visit a doctor for diagnosis. They may have some or none of the following symptoms:
- Frequent urination
- Excessive thirst
- Unexplained weight loss
- Extreme hunger
- Sudden vision changes
- Tingling or numbness in hands or feet
- Feeling very tired much of the time
- Very dry skin
- Sores that are slow to heal
- More infections than usual
Nausea, vomiting, or stomach pains may accompany some of these symptoms in the abrupt onset of type 1 diabetes.
Can diabetes be prevented?
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition where the body's immune system misidentifies the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas and attacks these cells.
Researchers are making progress in identifying the involvement of genes and triggering factors that predispose some individuals to develop type 1 diabetes, but there is no known way to prevent type 1 diabetes.
Unlike with type 1 diabetes, there are numerous ways to reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. A number of studies have shown that regular physical activity can significantly reduce the risk, as can maintaining a healthy body weight.
The Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP), a large prevention study of people at high risk for diabetes, showed that lifestyle intervention that resulted in weight loss and increased physical activity in this population can prevent or delay type 2 diabetes and in some cases return blood glucose levels to within the normal range. Other international studies have shown similar results.
8: Influenza and pneumonia
- Deaths: 55,227
- Rate: 17.3
- Age-adjusted rate: 15.1
- Percentage of total deaths: 2.1 percent
Influenza and pneumonia are the eighth leading cause of death in the U.S.
Influenza (flu) is a highly contagious viral infection that is one of the most severe illnesses of the winter season. The reason influenza is more prevalent in the winter is not known; however, data suggest the virus survives and is transmitted better in cold temperatures. Influenza is spread easily from person to person, usually when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
A person can have the flu more than once because the virus that causes the disease may belong to different strains of one of three different influenza virus families: A, B or C. Type A viruses tend to have a greater effect on adults, while type B viruses are a greater problem in children.
Influenza can be complicated by pneumonia, a serious condition that can cause inflammation of the lungs. In people with pneumonia, the air sacs in the lungs fill with pus and other liquid, preventing oxygen from reaching the bloodstream. If there is too little oxygen in the blood, the body's cells cannot work properly, which can lead to death.
Warning signs and symptoms of influenza and pneumonia
Signs and symptoms of influenza include:
Signs and symptoms of pneumonia include:
- Rapid breathing
- Chest pains
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling of weakness or ill health
Can influenza and pneumonia be prevented?
Methods of preventing influenza and pneumonia include:
- Vaccination against flu every year to prevent seasonal influenza.
- Vaccination against pneumococcal pneumonia if you are at high risk of getting this type of pneumonia.
- Washing hands frequently, especially after blowing nose, going to the bathroom, diapering, and before eating or preparing foods.
- Quitting smoking - tobacco damages the lungs and reduces the ability to fight off infection. Smokers have been found to be at a higher risk of getting pneumonia.
- Since pneumonia often follows respiratory infections, be aware of any symptoms that linger for more than a few days.
- Good health habits - a healthy diet, rest, regular exercise, etc. - help prevent viruses and respiratory illnesses.
- Hib vaccine prevents pneumonia in children from Haemophilus influenzae type B.
- A drug called Synagis (palivizumab) can be given to some children younger than 24 months to prevent pneumonia caused by respiratory syncytial virus.
- Patients with cancer or HIV should consult their doctor for advice on how to reduce their risk of pneumonia and other infections.
9: Kidney disease
- Deaths: 48,146
- Rate: 15.1
- Age-adjusted rate: 13.2
- Percentage of total deaths: 1.8 percent
Kidney disease is the ninth leading cause of death in the U.S.
Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis are all conditions, disorders, or diseases of the kidneys.
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is a condition in which the kidneys are damaged and cannot filter blood as well as healthy kidneys. Because of this, waste from the blood remains in the body and may cause other health problems.
An estimated 10 percent of adults in the U.S. - more than 20 million people - are thought to have CKD to some degree. The chances of developing CKD increase with age, especially after the age of 50, and the condition is most common among adults older than 70.
Awareness and understanding about kidney disease is critically low, with an estimated 26 million Americans having chronic kidney disease. Among those with severe (stage 4) kidney disease, fewer than half realize that they have damaged kidneys.
Warning signs and symptoms of kidney disease
The early symptoms of chronic kidney disease are the same as for many other illnesses. These symptoms may be the only sign of a problem in the early stages.
Symptoms may include:
- Appetite loss
- General ill feeling and fatigue
- Itching (pruritus) and dry skin
- Weight loss without trying to lose weight
Symptoms that may occur when kidney function has become severe include:
- Abnormally dark or light skin
- Bone pain
- Drowsiness or problems concentrating or thinking
- Numbness or swelling in the hands and feet
- Muscle twitching or cramps
- Breath odor
- Easy bruising, or blood in the stool
- Excessive thirst
- Frequent hiccups
- Problems with sexual function
- Menstrual periods stop (amenorrhea)
- Shortness of breath
- Sleep problems
- Vomiting, often in the morning
Can kidney disease be prevented?
To reduce your risk of chronic kidney disease:
- Avoid excessive intake of alcohol
- Follow instructions on OTC medications, especially when using non-prescription pain relievers
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Quit smoking
- Manage medical conditions with the help of a doctor or health care professional
- Deaths: 42,773
- Rate: 13.4
- Age-adjusted rate: 13
- Percentage of total deaths: 1.6 percent
Among adults aged 18 years or younger in the U.S. during 2008-2009:
- An estimated 8.3 million adults (3.7 percent of the adult U.S. population) reported having suicidal thoughts in the past year
- An estimated 2.2 million adults (1.0 percent of the adult U.S. population) reported having made suicide plans in the past year
- An estimated 1 million adults (0.5 percent of the U.S. adult population) reported making a suicide attempt in the past year
How can suicide be prevented?
Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S.
Risk factors vary with age, gender, and ethnic group. Some important risk factors are:
- Depression and other mental disorders
- Substance abuse
- Prior suicide attempt
- Family history of suicide
- Family violence including physical or sexual abuse
- Firearms in the home
- Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others, such as family members or peers
However, it is important to note that many people with these risk factors are not suicidal, while others who are contemplating suicide may not have any of these risk factors.
The following are some of the signs you might notice in yourself or a friend that may be a reason for concern.
- Talking about wanting to die or to kill yourself
- Looking for a way to kill yourself, such as searching online or buying a gun
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings