Around 74% of all deaths in the United States occur as a result of 10 causes. Over the past 5 years, the main causes of death in the U.S. have remained fairly consistent.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 2,813,503 registered deaths in the United States in 2017.
The age-adjusted death rate, which accounts for the aging population, is 731.9 deaths per 100,000 people in the U.S. This is an increase of 0.4% over 2016’s death rate.
However, the CDC advise that using age-adjusted rates is inaccurate for ranking causes of death.
All figures and percentages provided here come from the most recent data from the CDC, collected in 2017.
In this article, we expand on each of the leading causes of death and provide links to more detailed information on each condition. We also rank the causes according to the number of deaths per condition and their percentage share of the overall registered death count in the U.S.
- Deaths in 2017: 647,457
- Percentage of total deaths: 23.5%
Medical professionals use the term heart disease to describe several conditions. Many of these conditions relate to the buildup of plaque in the walls of the arteries.
As the plaque develops, the arteries narrow. This makes it difficult for blood to flow around the body and increases the risk of heart attack or stroke. It can also give rise to angina, arrythmias, and heart failure.
To reduce the risk of dying from heart disease, a person can protect their heart health by adopting a healthful diet and getting regular exercise.
Being able to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack can also help people get prompt medical treatment and potentially save their lives.
- Deaths in 2017: 599,108
- Percentage of total deaths: 21.3%
Cancer occurs when cells do not die at the normal point in their life cycle. If a person’s body cannot control the spread of these cells, they can interfere with essential, life-sustaining systems and possibly lead to death.
Everyone has some degree of risk, but for most cancers, the risk will increase with age. Some people have a higher or lower risk due to differences in exposure to carcinogens, such as from smoking or exposure to chemical pollutants. Genetic factors also play a strong role in cancer’s development.
However, researchers are always taking steps to advance cancer treatment. In fact, the death rate from all cancers in the U.S. has dropped by 26% since 1991.
Estimated cancer-related deaths for 2019
The American Cancer Society estimate how many people will die from certain types of cancer in 2019.
According to them, the leading causes of death from cancer for males will be:
- Lung and bronchus cancer: 76,650 deaths
- Prostate cancer: 31,620 deaths
- Colorectal cancer: 27,640 deaths
The leading causes of death from cancer for females will be:
- Lung and bronchus cancer: 66,020 deaths
- Breast cancer: 41,760 deaths
- Colorectal cancer: 23,380 deaths
- Deaths in 2017: 169,936
- Percentage of total deaths: 6%
Accidents, or unintentional injuries, are the 4th leading cause of death in the U.S. overall, and the leading cause of death for those aged 1–44.
Possible prevention measures
Accidents are unintentional and usually unavoidable. However, there are many ways to reduce the risk of accidental injury and death.
Some key components of accident prevention include focusing on road and workplace safety, such as using a seatbelt and never driving or operating heavy machinery while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
- Deaths in 2017: 160,201
- Percentage of total deaths: 5.7%
Chronic lower respiratory disease refers to a group of lung conditions that block the airflow and cause breathing-related issues. These diseases include:
Smoking drastically increases a person’s risk of developing these conditions.
- Deaths in 2017: 146,383
- Percentage of total deaths: 5.2%
Cerebrovascular diseases develop due to problems with the blood vessels that supply the brain.
Four of the most common cerebrovascular diseases are:
Every year, more than 795,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke. The risk of stroke varies with race, ethnicity, and age.
The highest death rates from stroke in the U.S. occur in the Southeast.
- Deaths in 2017: 121,404
- Percentage of total deaths: 4.3%
Dementia refers to a group of conditions that cause a decline in cognitive function. This affects a person’s ability to perform everyday activities.
Damage to the nerve cells in the brain causes dementia. 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. Another type, called vascular dementia, can cause similar symptoms but instead results from changes to blood flow to the brain.
For people with Alzheimer’s disease, neuron damage and death eventually impair their ability to perform essential actions, such as walking and swallowing.
People in the final stages of this condition may not be able to leave their bed and may require around the clock care. Alzheimer’s is ultimately fatal.
In the U.S., an estimated 5.8 million people currently have Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. This figure may rise to 14 million people by 2050 as life expectancy continues to increase.
Alzheimer’s is also the only cause of death in the top 10 that medical experts cannot cure, prevent, or slow down.
- Deaths in 2017: 83,564
- Percentage of total deaths: 3%
Diabetes is a condition wherein the body can no longer control blood glucose, which leads to dangerously high levels of blood glucose. This is called hyperglycemia.
Persistent hyperglycemia can damage the body’s tissues, including those in the nerves, blood vessels, and eyes.
The body converts most of the food people eat into glucose, a simple sugar, which it can then use for energy. The pancreas, an organ near the stomach, makes a hormone called insulin to move glucose from the bloodstream into the cells.
The bodies of people with type 1 diabetes do not produce insulin at all, so these people need to supplement their supply. The bodies of people with type 2 diabetes cannot use insulin effectively.
However, it is possible to control the risk of type 2 diabetes with careful dietary management and regular exercise.
Diabetes can cause serious health complications, including heart disease, blindness, kidney failure, and the need for amputation of the lower extremities.
- Deaths in 2017: 55,672
- Percentage of total deaths: 2%
Flu spreads easily from person to person, usually when someone who carries the virus coughs or sneezes.
A person can have the flu more than once, as many different strains of the virus can cause infection. They may belong to one of three different influenza families: A, B or C.
Type A viruses tend to affect adults more severely, while type B viruses most often cause health problems in children. Type C viruses are fairly uncommon.
Pneumonia causes the air sacs in the lungs to fill with pus and other fluids, preventing oxygen from reaching the bloodstream. If there is too little oxygen in the blood, the body’s cells cannot function. This can be fatal.
- Deaths in 2017: 50,633
- Percentage of total deaths: 1.8%
Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis are all conditions that affect the kidneys.
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) causes kidney damage. Damaged kidneys cannot filter blood as well as healthy kidneys. As a result of this, waste from the blood remains in the body and may lead to other health problems.
Around 30 million people in the U.S. may have CKD to some degree. Being over 60 years old increases the risk of CKD, as does having a family history of it. High blood pressure and diabetes are most likely to cause the CKD.
CKD develops in stages, and it does not usually cause symptoms until its most advanced stage. So, undergoing regular screenings can help reduce a person’s risk of dying from kidney disease.
- Deaths in 2017: 47,173
However, not all people who attempt suicide or die by it have these conditions.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people aged 10-34 years.
Establishing a strong support network, taking appropriate medications, and seeking therapy may help reduce the risk of suicide.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 1-800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can call 1-800-799-4889.
How do I bring down my overall risk of death?
Lifestyle habits will most likely have the greatest impact on a person’s risk of developing some of these conditions.
Eating healthful foods in optimal proportions, sleeping and exercising regularly, drinking in moderation, avoiding tobacco products and other drugs, and building healthy and positive relationships will all work to improve a person’s quality of life and reduce their risk of premature death.
Also, establishing an ongoing relationship with a doctor and undergoing regular screenings for conditions that run in the family can aid prompt treatment if these conditions do develop.
Vincent J. Tavella, MPH Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.