The main causes of death in the United States are typically heart disease, cancer, and unintentional injury. However, short-term health risks, like COVID-19, can also have a profound effect on death rates.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports there were 3,464,231 registered deaths in the United States in 2021 – the latest available reporting period.

Excess death rates were higher than previous accounts in 2021 due to the effect of COVID-19, which was the third-leading cause of death in the US in 2021.

The age-adjusted death rate, which accounts for the aging population, is 1,043.8 deaths per 100,000 population However, the CDC advises that using age-adjusted rates is inaccurate for ranking causes of death.

In this article, we expand on the leading causes of death and provide links to more detailed information on each condition.

An American Flag Flying At Half StaffShare on Pinterest
Bloomberg Creative/Getty Images
  • Deaths in 2021: 695,547
  • Percentage of total deaths: 20%

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. This is the case in the U.S. and worldwide. More than half of all people who die due to heart disease are men.

Medical professionals use the term heart disease to describe several conditions. Many of these conditions relate to plaque buildup in the arteries’ walls.

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, arrhythmias, and heart failure.

Learn more about the symptoms of heart disease and how to prevent it in our cardiovascular health hub.

  • Deaths in 2021: 605,213
  • Percentage of total deaths: 17.4%

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 risk, but for most cancers, the risk increases 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 development.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of death among cancer diagnoses.

To learn more about cancer, visit our dedicated content hub.

COVID-19 in 2021

  • Deaths in 2021: 416,893
  • Percentage of total deaths: 12%

In 2021, COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death in the United States. This is not typically the case; mortality rates have fallen sharply in the years since.

Was this helpful?
  • Deaths in 2021: 224,935
  • Percentage of total deaths: 6.5%

Accidents, or unintentional injuries, are the 4th leading cause of death in the U.S. overall and the leading cause of death for those ages 1–44. These injuries include falls, car accidents, and accidental poisonings.

  • Deaths in 2021: 162,890
  • Percentage of total deaths: 4.7%

Cerebrovascular diseases develop due to problems with the blood vessels that supply the brain. Four of the most common cerebrovascular diseases are:

Learn more about stroke causes, symptoms, and prevention methods here.

  • Deaths in 2021: 142,342
  • Percentage of total deaths: 4.1%

Chronic lower respiratory disease is 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 2021: 119,399
  • Percentage of total deaths: 3.4%

Alzheimer’s disease is a dementia. 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 beds and may require around-the-clock care. Alzheimer’s is ultimately fatal.

Learn more about Alzheimer’s and dementia in our dedicated content hub.

  • Deaths in 2021: 103,294
  • Percentage of total deaths: 2.9%

Diabetes is when the body can no longer control blood glucose, leading to dangerously high blood glucose levels. This is called hyperglycemia. Persistent hyperglycemia can damage the body’s tissues, including nerves, blood vessels, and eyes.

There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes can cause serious health complications, including heart disease, blindness, kidney failure, and the need for amputation of the lower extremities.

Learn more in our dedicated diabetes hub here.

  • Deaths in 2021: 56,585
  • Percentage of total deaths: 1.6%

Chronic liver disease is a progressive deteriation of liver function. Long-term damage to the liver can lead to scarring (cirrhosis).

End-stage liver disease has a significant mortality risk and is most commonly the result of viral infections and alcohol abuse.

  • Deaths in 2021: 54,358
  • Percentage of total deaths: 1.5%

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, waste from the blood remains in the body and may lead to other health problems.

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 CKD.

In this article, learn more about CKD.

  • Deaths in 2018: 48,183
  • Percentage of total deaths: 1.4%

When a person dies by suicide, they may have lived with a mental health condition — such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder — for a long time. 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.

In this article, learn more about dealing with suicidal ideation, including how to get help.

Suicide prevention

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 it’s safe to do so.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

Was this helpful?

Heart disease, cancer, and unintentional injury are the three most common causes of death in the United States. In recent years COVID-19 has significantly impacted mortality, but this is now falling.