8 Leading Causes of Death in the United States

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The top causes of death in the U.S. have changed greatly in the last 100 years. Respiratory infections such as influenza and pneumonia, tuberculosis, gastroenteritis, heart disease, and stroke were the leading causes of death in 1900. Today, heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease, and accidents top the list at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics.

Other than accidents, these top five are lingering, chronic diseases, while 1900's top five causes tended to be quickly fatal. This change can be attributed to improvements in modern medicine in the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses. However, no amount of medical advancement can prevent all deaths, so today's leading causes of death remain disturbingly persistent.

Heart Disease

Heart disease is actually a category of several heart-related conditions including:

  • Coronary Heart Disease (CHD)
  • Heart attack
  • Aortic aneurysm
  • Arrhythmias
  • Congenital (present at birth) heart disease

According to the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease kills over 600,000 Americans each year, and 47 percent of those deaths occur before the victim receives emergency services or transport to the hospital. The major risk factors for heart disease are:

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Inactivity

Maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and not smoking are the best preventative measures for most types of heart disease.


Cancer is the second of the top causes of death in the U.S., and claims over half a million American lives each year. Lung cancer continues to cause the most deaths each year for both men and women, with breast cancer a close second for women and prostate cancer for men. Even with major advancements in cancer treatment, the number of deaths from cancer has decreased only slightly since 1950. While the number one risk factor for cancer is getting older, other factors such as cigarette smoking, heavy use of alcohol, and environmental exposure to carcinogenic chemicals can also contribute to the development of cancer.


Strokes come in two varieties. An ischemic stroke, the most common type, occurs when an artery supplying blood to the brain is suddenly blocked, usually by a blood clot. Hemorrhagic strokes happen when a blood vessel in the brain bursts and bleeds into the brain. Hemorrhagic strokes are much rarer than ischemic strokes, accounting for only 17 percent of all stroke cases. Death by stroke can be sudden if the stroke itself causes major damage to vital centers of the brain or excessive brain swelling results, but many people die in the days and weeks following the stroke of a heart attack or pneumonia. Infections acquired immediately after a stroke may not respond well to antibiotics, making them very dangerous in an already vulnerable patient.

Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases

Chronic lower respiratory diseases (CLRD) are the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. This group of illness includes chronic bronchitis, asthma, and emphysema. The Health Statistics Center of West Virginia states that eighty percent of CLRD cases are caused by smoking tobacco, while the other 20 percent are caused by genetic factors or environmental exposure to chemicals that cause damage to the lungs.

CLRD deaths increased 163 percent between 1965 and 1998, which reflects the increasing popularity of cigarette smoking 30 to 50 years ago due to the public's lack of knowledge about its dangers. Reported CLRD death statistics may be slightly lower than the reality, since it is often listed simply as a contributing cause of death while respiratory arrest is listed as the underlying cause, but many Americans are still losing spouses and parents to this kind of disease.


The National Center for Health Statistics ranks unintentional injuries, falls, poisonings, and motor vehicle accidents fifth in the top causes of death in the U.S., killing over 100,000 U.S. citizens each year. Accidents are the number one cause of death for Americans between the ages of 1 and 41, and are increasing at a higher rate each year than any of the four top causes of death in children. Research indicates that Americans are more aware of the dangers of violence than of accidental injuries. The best way to prevent accidents is to be aware of the dangers inherent in everyday life, especially in activities like driving or working around the home.

Top Causes of Death in the U.S.

While the top causes of death have changed in the last 100 years, the sad fact remains that many of these deaths were preventable. Healthy eating, regular exercise, and proper medical care can reduce the chances of dying from a disease, while simple safety awareness can reduce the chances of death by accident. Better, smarter health and lifestyle choices can keep Americans living longer and healthier lives.

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8 Leading Causes of Death in the United States