What Are the 12 Leading Causes of Death in the United States?


For more than a decade, heart disease and cancer have claimed the first and second spots respectively as the leading causes of deaths in America. Together, the two causes are responsible for 46 percent of deaths in the United States. Combined with the third most common cause of death, chronic lower respiratory diseases, the three diseases account for half of all deaths in the United States.

For more than 30 years, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been collecting and examining causes of death. This information helps researchers and doctors understand if they need to address growing epidemics in healthcare. The numbers also help them understand how preventative measures may help people live longer and healthier lives.


The top 12 causes of death in the United States account for more than 75 percent of all deaths. Learn about each of the main causes and what can be done to prevent them.

1. Heart disease

Number of deaths per year: 633,842

Percent of total deaths: 24.1 percent


More common among:

  • men
  • people who smoke
  • people who are overweight or obese
  • people with a family history of heart disease or heart attack
  • people over age 55

What causes heart disease?


Heart disease is a term used to describe a range of conditions that affect your heart and blood vessels. These conditions include:

Tips for prevention


Many cases of heart disease can be prevented through lifestyle changes. These changes include:

  • quitting smoking
  • eating a healthier diet
  • exercising at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week
  • maintaining a healthy weight

2. Cancer

Number of deaths per year: 595,930

Percent of total deaths: 22.7 percent

More common among: Each type of cancer has a specific set of risk factors, but several risk factors are common among multiple types. These risk factors include:

  • people of a certain age
  • people who use tobacco and alcohol
  • people exposed to radiation and sunlight
  • people with chronic inflammation
  • people who are obese
  • people with a family history of the disease

What causes cancer?

Cancer is the result of rapid and uncontrolled cell growth in your body. A normal cell multiplies and divides in a controlled manner. Sometimes, those instructions become scrambled. When this happens, the cells begin to divide at an uncontrolled rate. This can develop into cancer.


Tips for prevention

There’s no clear way to avoid cancer. But certain behaviors have been linked to increased cancer risk, like smoking, so avoiding those may help you cut your risk. Good changes to your behaviors include:

  • maintaining a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet, and exercising regularly
  • quitting smoking, and drinking in moderation
  • avoiding direct exposure to the sun or ultraviolet tanning lights
  • having regular cancer screenings, including skin checks, mammograms, prostate exams, and more

3. Chronic lower respiratory diseases

Number of deaths per year: 155,041


Percent of total deaths: 5.9 percent


More common among:

  • women
  • people over age 65
  • people with a history of smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke
  • people with a history of asthma
  • individuals in lower-income households

What causes respiratory diseases?


This group of diseases includes:

Each of these conditions or diseases prevents your lungs from working properly. They can also cause scarring and damage to the lung’s tissues.

Tips for prevention

Tobacco use and second-hand smoke exposure are the primary factors in the development of these diseases. Quit smoking, and limit your exposure to other people’s smoke to reduce your risk. See what readers had to say when asked for real and practical tips to help you quit smoking.

4. Accidents (unintentional injuries)

Number of deaths per year: 146,571

Percent of total deaths: 5.6 percent


More common among:

  • men
  • people age 1 to 44
  • people with risky jobs

What causes accidents?

Accidents lead to more than 28 million emergency room visits each year. The three leading causes of accident-related death are:

  • unintentional falls
  • motor vehicle traffic deaths
  • unintentional poisoning deaths

Tips for prevention

Unintentional injuries may be the result of carelessness or a lack of careful action. Be aware of your surroundings, and take all proper precautions to prevent accidents or injuries.

If you hurt yourself, seek emergency medical treatment to prevent serious complications.


5. Stroke

Number of deaths per year: 140,323

Percent of total deaths: 5.3 percent


More common among:

What causes a stroke?

A stroke occurs when the blood flow to your brain is cut off. Without oxygen-rich blood flowing to your brain, your brain cells begin to die in a matter of minutes.

The blood flow can be stopped because of a blocked artery or bleeding in the brain. This bleeding may be from an aneurysm or a broken blood vessel.

Tips for prevention

Many of the same lifestyle changes that can reduce your risk for heart disease can also reduce your risk for stroke. These changes include:

  • exercising more, eating better, and maintaining a healthy weight
  • controlling your blood pressure
  • stopping smoking, and drinking only in moderation
  • managing your blood sugar level and diabetes
  • treating any underlying heart defects or diseases

6. Alzheimer’s disease

Number of deaths per year: 110,561

Percent of total deaths: 3.9 percent

More common among:

  • women
  • people over age 65 — the risk for Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after age 65, according to the National Institute on Aging
  • people with a family history of the disease

What causes Alzheimer’s disease?

The cause of Alzheimer’s disease is unclear, but researchers and doctors believe a combination of a person’s genes, lifestyle, and environment, impacts the brain over time. Some of these changes occur years, even decades, before the first symptoms appear.

Tips for prevention

While you can’t control your age or genetics, which are two of the most common risk factors for this disease, you can control certain lifestyle factors that may increase your risk for it by:

  • exercising and remaining physically active throughout your life
  • eating a diet filled with fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and reduced sugar
  • treating and monitoring any other chronic diseases you have
  • keeping your brain active with stimulating tasks like conversation, puzzles, and reading

7. Diabetes

Number of deaths per year: 79,535

Percent of total deaths: 3.0 percent

More common among:

Type 1 diabetes is more commonly diagnosed in:

  • people with a family history of the disease, or a specific gene that increases the risk
  • children between the age of 4 and 7
  • people living in climates further away from the equator

Type 2 diabetes is more common among:

  • people who are overweight or obese
  • adults over age 45
  • people who have a family history of diabetes

What causes diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes occurs when your pancreas cannot produce enough insulin. Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body becomes resistant to insulin or doesn’t make enough of it to control your blood sugar levels.

Tips for prevention

You cannot prevent type 1 diabetes. However, type 2 diabetes may be prevented with several lifestyle changes. These changes include:

  • reaching and maintaining a healthy weight
  • exercising for at least 30 minutes, five days a week
  • eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins
  • having regular blood sugar checks if you have a family history of the disease

8. Influenza and pneumonia

Number of deaths per year: 57,062

Percent of total deaths: 2.2 percent

More common among:

  • children
  • the elderly
  • people with chronic health conditions
  • pregnant women

What causes influenza and pneumonia?

Influenza (the flu) is a highly contagious viral infection. It’s very common during winter months. Pneumonia is an infection or inflammation of the lungs. The flu is one of the leading causes of pneumonia. Find out how to determine if you have the flu or a cold.

Tips for prevention

Before flu season, people in the high-risk category can and should get a flu vaccine. Anyone else concerned about the virus should get one, too. To prevent the spread of the flu, be sure to wash your hands well and avoid people who are sick.

Likewise, a pneumonia vaccine is available for people with a high risk of developing the infection.

9. Kidney disease

Number of deaths per year: 49,959

Percent of total deaths: 1.9 percent

More common among:

  • people with other chronic conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and recurrent kidney infections
  • people who smoke
  • people who are overweight or obese
  • people with a family history of kidney disease

What causes kidney diseases?

The term kidney disease refers to three main conditions:

Each of these conditions is the result of unique conditions or diseases.

Nephritis, or kidney inflammation, can be caused by an infection, a medication you’re taking, or an autoimmune disorder.

Nephrotic syndrome is a condition that causes your kidneys to produce high levels of protein in your urine. It’s often the result of kidney damage.

Nephrosis is a type of kidney disease that ultimately can lead to kidney failure. It’s also often the result of damage to the kidney from either physical or chemical changes.

Tips for prevention

Like with many of the other leading causes of death, taking better care of your health can help you prevent kidney disease. Lifestyle changes that can reduce your risk include:

  • eating a lower-sodium diet
  • stopping smoking and drinking
  • losing weight if you’re overweight or obese, and maintaining it
  • exercising for 30 minutes, five days a week
  • having regular blood and urine tests if you have a family history of the disease

10. Suicide

Number of deaths per year: 44,193

Percent of total deaths: 1.7 percent

More common among:

  • men
  • people with brain injuries
  • people who have attempted suicide in the past
  • people with a history of depression and other mental health illnesses
  • people who abuse alcohol or drugs

What causes suicide?

Suicide, or intentional self-harm, is death caused by a person’s own actions. People who die by suicide direct harm at themselves and die due to that harm. Almost 500,000 people are treated in emergency rooms each year for self-inflected injuries.

Tips for prevention


Suicide prevention aims to help individuals find treatment that encourages them to end suicidal thoughts and start finding healthier ways to cope. For many people, suicide prevention includes finding a support system of friends, family, and other people who’ve contemplated suicide. In some cases, medication and in-hospital treatment may be necessary.

If you’re thinking about harming yourself, consider contacting a suicide prevention hotline. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. It offers 24/7 support. You can also review our mental health resources list for more information about ways to find help.

11. Septicemia

Number of deaths per year: 40,685

Percent of total deaths: 1.5 percent

More common among:

  • adults over age 75
  • young children
  • people with a chronic illness
  • people with an impaired immune system

What causes septicemia?

Septicemia, sometimes called blood poisoning, is caused by a bacterial infection in the bloodstream. Most cases of septicemia develop after an infection somewhere else in the body becomes severe.

Tips for prevention

The best way to prevent septicemia is to have any bacterial infections treated quickly and thoroughly. If you think you may have an infection, make an appointment with your doctor. Complete the full treatment regimen prescribed by your doctor.

Early and thorough treatment can help prevent the spread of any bacterial infection to the blood.

12. Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis

Number of deaths per year: 40,265

Percent of total deaths: 1.5 percent

More common among:

What causes liver disease?

Both liver disease and cirrhosis are the result of liver damage.

Tips for prevention

If you have a problem with alcohol consumption, seek therapeutic or rehab treatment. The longer and more you drink, the greater your risk for developing liver disease or cirrhosis.

Likewise, if you’re diagnosed with hepatitis, be sure to properly treat the condition to prevent unnecessary liver damage.

Death rates that have decreased

Though it’s the most common cause, heart disease deaths have been falling over the last 50 years. However, in 2011, the number of deaths from heart disease began to slowly rise. Between 2011 and 2014, heart disease deaths rose three percent.

Deaths from influenza and pneumonia are likewise falling. According to the American Lung Association, deaths from the two diseases dropped an average of 3.8 percent per year since 1999.

Between 2010 and 2014, deaths from stroke dropped 11 percent.

This falling number of preventable deaths suggests that health awareness campaigns are hopefully increasing awareness of preventative measures people can take to live a longer, healthier life.

Rising death rates

The gap between heart disease and cancer was once much wider. Heart disease’s hold on the number one spot was wide and demanding.

Then, American health experts and doctors began encouraging Americans to curb smoking, and they started treating heart disease. Because of these efforts, the number of heart disease-related deaths has been falling over the last five decades. Meanwhile, the number of cancer-related deaths has been rising.

Just over 22,000 deaths separate the two causes today. Many researchers suspect cancer may over take heart disease as the leading cause of death in coming years.

Accidental deaths are also on the rise. From 2010 to 2014, the number of accident-related deaths increased by 23 percent. This number is fueled largely by substance overdose deaths.

Leading causes of death worldwide

The list of leading causes of death worldwide shares many of the same causes with the U.S. list. These causes of death include:

  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • lower respiratory infections
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • lung cancer
  • diabetes
  • Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
  • diarrhea
  • tuberculosis
  • road injury


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