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The CDC's Leading Cause of Death for Americans

Myrrh Hector
Reviewed by Terri Forehand RN
Hand holding heart

Knowing what is the leading cause of death for Americans can help prevent thousands of deaths from heart disease each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease kills more than 600,000 men and women annually. Heart disease is not a single condition, but a term used to describe a variety of heart conditions.

Why Is Heart Disease Fatal?

Simply put, heart disease kills by disrupting the functions of the heart. The heart pumps blood and oxygen to all body areas, and a person can't survive without a heartbeat for more than a few minutes. Each type of heart disease affects the heart in different ways, but all types affect the heart's ability to move blood throughout the body.

Coronary Heart Disease

Coronary heart disease (CHD) occurs as fatty plaque buildup narrows and hardens the blood vessels supplying the heart. Plaque buildup can become so severe that blood flow to the heart is nearly or completely blocked, causing a heart attack. Pieces of plaque may come lose, causing strokes and blood clots.

Heart Attack

A heart attack happens when the heart's tissues die because of blocked or reduced blood flow, and the damage to the heart during a heart attack can be permanent even if a person survives the actual attack. If blood flow is not quickly restored, the heart will stop and the person dies.

Because nearly half of heart attack deaths occur before emergency medical services arrive, getting prompt medical attention is critical to surviving a heart attack. The major symptom of a heart attack is pain. Heart attack pain and discomfort is not always in the chest; it can also be in the jaw, neck, back, arms, or shoulder. Other symptoms include a dizzy or light-headed feeling and shortness of breath. Anyone who thinks that he or she may be having a heart attack should call 9-1-1 immediately.


Arrhythmia is the term for a heartbeat that becomes irregular or beats faster or slower than is normal. This occurs when electrical impulses to the heart are disrupted, and it causes damage to the heart. One arrhythmia, ventricular fibrillation, is fatal within minutes if the heart is not shocked back to normal by an external defibrillator. Atrial fibrillation is another type of arrhythmia, and occurs when the upper chambers of the heart beat rapidly and irregularly. This causes blood to pool and clot in the lower chambers of the heart, greatly increasing stroke risk.

Congenital Heart Disease

Congenital heart disease is a malformation of the heart's structures that manifests itself during pregnancy or at birth. The most common type of major birth defect, congenital heart disease involves holes in the walls of the heart, deformed valves, or lack of an entire chamber of the heart. Congenital heart disease can sometimes be cured with heart surgery or treated with medications after birth.

Heart Failure

The inability of the heart to pump adequate amounts of blood through the body is called heart failure. The only effective cure for congestive heart failure is a heart transplant, although the condition can sometimes be controlled with lifelong medications. Heart failure occurs because of high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, or uncontrolled diabetes mellitus.

The major symptoms of heart failure include lower back, leg, and ankle swelling, and a general feeling of weakness and fatigue. Early treatment improves survival times for heart failure patients, so seeing a doctor promptly is important when heart failure symptoms begin.

Can Heart Disease Be Prevented?

In some cases, heart disease can be prevented or reduced by knowing and controlling risk factors. Using tobacco and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol increase the chances of developing heart disease, as do physical inactivity and obesity. A diet low in saturated fats and cholesterol is best for preventing heart disease. While an inherited predisposition can't be prevented, a healthy lifestyle can reduce the chances of developing heart disease or at least reduce the severity of its symptoms.

What Is the Leading Cause of Death for Americans?

Heart disease has been the top cause of death for Americans for many years, killing over half a million Americans each year. The increasingly sedentary American lifestyle has only increased the number of Americans afflicted with heart disease, and the numbers are growing each year. While heart disease is often fatal, reducing controllable risk factors can prevent some early deaths. Understanding what is the leading cause of death for Americans and what will prevent and reduce it can save lives.

The CDC's Leading Cause of Death for Americans