In the United States, the leading causes of death in adults include heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, cerebrovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.

This article will list the five diseases that cause the most deaths in the U.S., explaining their causes, symptoms, and treatments.

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Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.

In 2018, in the U.S., there were 2,839,205 registered deaths. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the 10 leading causes of death were responsible for 73.8% of these.

Accidents caused 5.9% of the total deaths, and 1.7% were deaths by suicide.

The other leading causes of death were heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, cerebrovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, and kidney disease.

The five leading causes of death, excluding accidents, were:

The NCHS figures show that 655,381 people died from heart disease in 2018. There are many different types of heart disease, and, together, they are the leading cause of death in the U.S.

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common form of heart disease. Doctors sometimes call it coronary heart disease. It happens when the blood vessels that carry blood to the heart (called coronary arteries) become narrowed or blocked. CAD can sometimes lead to heart attacks.

The symptoms are different for everyone. Some people may not have any symptoms, while others may experience:

  • pressure, squeezing, burning, or tightness in the chest during physical activity
  • cold sweats
  • dizziness
  • nausea or indigestion
  • neck, shoulder, or arm pain
  • shortness of breath, especially with activity
  • weakness

Doctors might recommend treating CAD with lifestyle changes, such as:

  • being physically active
  • following a healthful, balanced diet
  • managing stress
  • stopping smoking
  • limiting alcohol intake
  • losing weight

Many people with CAD need medication. Some drugs will ease or stop the chest pain, whereas others will treat health conditions that might be contributing to CAD.

For people with advanced CAD, doctors might recommend a surgical procedure, such as a percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI). During a PCI, heart surgeons will unblock or widen the affected blood vessels. They will then put a small tube, or stent, in the vessel to stop it from narrowing again. Some people with severe CAD may need open heart bypass surgery.

In 2018, 599,274 people in the U.S. died from cancer. Cancer happens when DNA damage causes the body to make abnormal cells that it does not need. These abnormal cancer cells start to multiply uncontrollably, becoming tumors.

Cancer can start almost anywhere in the body. Eventually, the cancer cells can metastasize (spread) to other areas of the body and begin to multiply there, too. There are more than 100 different types of cancer.

The symptoms of cancer vary depending on the type. They might include:

  • lumps or thickening of the skin
  • bladder changes, including trouble urinating or pain or bleeding when urinating
  • bowel changes, such as blood in the stools or changes in bowel habits
  • severe and persistent tiredness
  • problems eating, including pain after eating, trouble swallowing, nausea, and vomiting
  • night sweats or fever
  • skin changes, such as moles, freckles, warts, sores that do not heal, easy bruising, or changes in skin color
  • unexplained weight gain or weight loss

The right cancer treatment will depend on the type of cancer, where it is, the size of the tumor, and whether it has spread. The main options include:

  • surgery to remove the tumor from the body
  • radiation therapy, which uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells
  • chemotherapy, which uses drugs to kill cancer cells

A total of 159,486 people died from chronic lower respiratory disease in 2018. Chronic lower respiratory disease refers to a group of conditions that affect the lungs. Examples include:

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

COPD is a progressive lung condition that makes it difficult to breathe. The conditions that make up COPD include emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Smoking is the most common cause of COPD.

The symptoms include a persistent cough, shortness of breath during physical activity, wheezing, and tightness in the chest.

There is no cure for COPD. However, doctors might recommend inhalers that can help with the symptoms, as well as healthful lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, to slow the progression of the disease.

Pulmonary hypertension

Pulmonary hypertension is the term for high blood pressure in the arteries that deliver blood to the lungs. Over time, vessels become hard and narrow, meaning that the heart must work harder to pump the blood through them. Pulmonary hypertension can lead to heart failure.

The common symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath
  • feeling tired
  • fainting
  • dizziness
  • irregular heartbeat
  • swelling

There is no cure for pulmonary hypertension, but doctors might recommend treatments that can control the symptoms. Sometimes, people with pulmonary hypertension might need a lung transplant.

The NCHS figures show that 147,810 people died from cerebrovascular disease in 2018. Stroke is the most common type of cerebrovascular disease.

The American Stroke Association describe stroke as a disease that affects the arteries that carry blood to and around the brain. The symptoms come on suddenly and include:

  • numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg, usually affecting just one side of the body
  • confusion
  • difficulty speaking or understanding others
  • vision problems
  • dizziness, problems walking, loss of balance, or a lack of coordination
  • a severe headache

There are three main types of stroke. Two require immediate, emergency medical attention, while the other may resolve without treatment.

Ischemic stroke

An ischemic stroke happens when a clot blocks the vessel that takes blood to the brain. It requires emergency medical attention. A doctor may use drugs to break up the clot.

Hemorrhagic stroke

A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a blood vessel bursts in the brain. It requires urgent medical attention, usually in the form of an operation. Surgeons can repair the burst vessel with a metal clip.

Transient ischemic attack (TIA)

TIA is when blood flow to the brain is inadequate for a short period. Normal blood flow usually resumes shortly afterward. For many people, the symptoms resolve without treatment. Some people call this a ministroke.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia — a neurological condition that causes memory loss and problems with how a person thinks. In 2018, it caused 122,019 deaths in the U.S.

Scientists are not sure what causes Alzheimer’s disease, but it tends to affect older people and get worse over time. The main symptoms include:

  • trouble remembering new information
  • disorientation
  • mood changes
  • personality changes
  • memory loss
  • difficulty communicating

There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s. However, some treatments can slow down the progression of the disease, and others can improve people’s quality of life.

In 2018, the five deadliest illnesses in the U.S. were heart disease, cancer, lung disease, cerebrovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.

The other leading causes of death due to disease were diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, and kidney disease.