Top 10 Causes of Death in the United States

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According to a study released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans were living longer in 2010, although the change in life expectancy, from 78.6 years in 2009 to 78.7 in 2010, is hardly worth celebrating (and too much celebrating might knock off that extra tenth of a year you picked up). The widely reported news from that report is good news, indeed — for the first time since 1965, homicide did not make the top 15 causes of death in the United States. Beyond that good news, the study offered a revealing look at the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. Health experts say that lifestyle changes can help prevent or reduce the risk of some of these fatal conditions.


10. Suicide (37,793 deaths in 2010)

Suicide claimed more than 37,000 lives in the U.S. in 2010.

United States Army suicide prevention poster advises veterans to look out for suicidal tendencies in fellow soldiers.

Sadly, this was the No. 3 killer in the 15-24 age group, claiming more than 4,500 lives in 2010, but it remains a problem in older age groups as well, ranking as the No. 4 killer among those ages 25-44, with 12,119 deaths last year. You’ve probably heard the warning signs to heed: depression, sleeplessness, increased drug or alcohol use, and the biggest red flag of all, talking about suicide. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website is a good place to start for help in dealing with a suicidal friend or loved one.


9. Influenza and Pneumonia (50,003 deaths)

Many deaths due to flu could be prevented with flu vaccines.

Tamiflu vaccine; © April Gazmen

Each year, these ailments kill enough people to fill a college football stadium. Many of these deaths could be prevented if the individuals had received a flu shot, yet health-care professionals continue to be dismayed by widespread rumors that flu shots are more dangerous than the flu itself. This is dangerous advice that has been refuted by health-care experts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that hundreds of millions of people have safely received seasonal flu vaccines through the years, and millions received the controversial H1N1 flu vaccine in 2009. The most common symptoms were mild, such as soreness and swelling, aches and a low-grade fever. The alternative is much worse.


8. Kidney-Related Disorders (50,472 deaths)

Kidney-related disorders are on the rise, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

Patient undergoing dialysis; Picsfive/

As if more than 50,000 kidney-related deaths last year wasn’t bad enough, the National Kidney Foundation offers this sobering statistic: studies show 26 million Americans have chronic kidney disease, and millions more are at risk, as today’s obese children and young adults age. The NKF recommends having your urine tested once a year to help in the early detection of kidney problems. Eating a sensible, heart-healthy diet is also important.


7. Diabetes Mellitus (68,905 deaths)

If you've been diagnosed with diabetes, regular blood sugar testing is crucial to maintaining good health.
If you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, your doctor has undoubtedly told you why it’s important to regulate your blood sugar. The good news is that type 2 diabetes, the type most commonly diagnosed in adults, is highly preventable, with a few lifestyle changes. According to the American Diabetes Association, anyone over age 45 or with a family history of diabetes should watch their weight and exercise on a regular basis to reduce their risk.


6. Alzheimer’s Disease (83,308 deaths)

Certain preventive measures can lower your risk of Alzheimer's.

Photo credit: Lisa F. Young/

It’s a fact of life that as we live longer, our chances of developing this tragic disease increase dramatically. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, a person’s chances of developing the disease double every five years after age 65. Those over age 85 face an almost 50 percent risk of developing the disease. But lifestyle decisions you make in your 30s and 40s and even younger can help decrease your future risk of Alzheimer’s. First, studies have shown a strong correlation between heart health and brain health; good circulation helps maintain healthy brain cells. So following a heart-healthy diet, exercise, watching your weight and not smoking all can help in this regard. There is also growing evidence that head traumas suffered earlier in life can increase your risk of Alzheimer’s, so be sure to wear a helmet when riding your bike or skateboarding.


5. Accidents and Unintentional Injuries (118,043 deaths)

Accidents killed almost 120,000 people in the United States in 2010.

Photo credit: Chris Yarzab

These were the No. 1 killer for every age group below 45-64, where cancer took over the No. 1 spot. Unfortunately, this is one category where the actions of others can negate certain precautions you might take; you can be a safe and deliberate driver, for example, but that won’t help if a drunk driver runs into you. However, you can reduce your risk of accidental death by taking common-sense precautions, such as fall-proofing your home. The National Safety Council reports some 25,000 Americans died in falls in 2009, many in the home. Make sure to always buckle your seat belt — motor vehicle crashes kill roughly 40,000 people each year in the U.S. Evidence in this case is completely anecdotal, from many different sources, but various studies suggest somewhere between half and three-quarters of the people killed were not wearing their seat belts.


4. Cerebrovascular Diseases (129,180 deaths)

If you suspect symptoms of a stroke, seek medical help immediately.

Arrows point to brain area affected by stroke; Dr. James Heilman

Many people view strokes as a disease of the elderly. According to the Centers for Disease Control report, more than 19,000 people under age 65 died of cerebrovascular diseases in 2010. Adopting a healthy lifestyle can greatly reduce your risk of stroke. The biggest culprit is hypertension, or high blood pressure, but obesity, smoking and diabetes also play a role. As the National Stroke Foundation notes, “Stroke risk can be controlled easier than one might think.”


3. Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease (137,789 deaths)

Smoking is a leading cause of COPD.

Smoking is responsible for 75 percent of COPD deaths. © Jean Schweitzer/

This family of diseases, also known as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Three words: Do not smoke, as smoking is believed to be responsible for 75 percent of COPD deaths. Interestingly, although the rate of smoking has declined sharply in the past half century, COPD deaths were up from 1980 to 2000, from 20.1 to 56.7 per 100,000 population for women and 73.0 to 82.6 per 100,000 for men. Those figures have declined slightly in the past decade.


2. Malignant Neoplasms (Cancer) (573,855 deaths)

Cancer claimed more than a half-million American lives in 2010.

Photo credit: Levent Konuk/

According to the American Cancer Society, tobacco use is responsible for at least 30 percent of cancer deaths each year in the U.S., but here’s an even more alarming statistic: tobacco use causes nearly 1 in 5 of all deaths each year in the United States. Yet the ACS estimates some 47 million Americans still smoke. However, many people who life healthy lifestyles develop cancer, including those who are genetically predisposed to the condition. If there is a history of cancer in your family, consult your doctor for recommended screening guidelines, including possible genetic testing to see if you’re susceptible to certain cancers. The American Cancer Society also offers helpful advice for when to test.


1. Heart Disease (595,444 deaths)

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.

Photo credit: Werner Vermaak

This is the No. 1 killer for those ages 65 and older, claiming almost a half-million lives in the U.S. in 2010 (cancer was second, attributed to 396,173 deaths). Obviously, by this age, lifestyle decisions made decades earlier regarding exercise, diet, smoking, etc. have already taken a toll, but it’s never too late to adopt a healthier lifestyle. For example, the American Heart Association says that one year after quitting smoking, a person’s risk of coronary disease drops by 50 percent; five to 15 years after quitting, your risk of stroke is similar to that of a non-smoker.


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