Like it or not, we’re all going to die. Chances are, we’ll succumb to one of the more common causes of death, be it an accident or disease associated with aging. While many leading causes of death in the United States are also leading causes around the world, like heart disease and cancer, the Global South has many causes of death that are unique to the region including diarrheal disease and malaria.
Read on for a list of 30 of the leading causes of death in the US and around the world, what the risk factors are for those causes, and what you can do to reduce your risk factors.
1. Heart Disease
Heart disease, which includes ailments like cardiac arrest, myocardial infarction (more commonly referred to as a heart attack) and more, is one of the leading causes of death throughout the entire world. In the United States, it is routinely the number one cause of death each year.
Risk factors for heart disease include obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, a diet high in saturated animal fats, and some hereditary factors. To reduce your risk of heart disease, you should eat a balanced diet with unsaturated fats and healthy plant proteins, increase your exercise to at least a 20-minute walk per day, and have regular check-ups with your doctor.
Cancer is another major cause of death worldwide, even surpassing heart disease in some countries. Japan has a staggeringly high rate of stomach cancer deaths, while other countries experience high rates of lung and other cancer deaths. The risk factors for cancers vary significantly by the type of cancer, but in general smoking, obesity, an unhealthy diet, and a sedentary lifestyle all contribute to cancer rates.
To lower your risk, stop smoking or vaping, limit alcohol use, get the Human Papilloma Virus vaccine, eat a diet high in fiber and fruits and vegetables, wear sunscreen, and have regular check-ups with your primary care physician.
Unfortunately, despite all of the safety improvements over the years, unintentional injuries and accidents continue to be a leading cause of death, especially among younger people. These accidents include workplace injuries, vehicular accidents, accidental firearm discharges, and more. While accidents are, by their very nature, chaotic, and hard to prevent, there are some risk factors like drug and alcohol abuse and owning firearms.
To lower the likelihood of accidental death, rigorously follow workplace safety protocols if you work in a hazardous field. You should not consume alcohol or drugs before operating a vehicle or machinery. If you have guns in your home, always keep them safely secured in a gun safe.
Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease refers to a group of common ailments, including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD), emphysema, and more. In these diseases, airway restrictions combined with fluid in the lungs causes respiratory failure and death. Smoking cigarettes is one of the most significant risk factors for this widespread common cause of death worldwide.
The single greatest risk factor for lower respiratory diseases is exposure to tobacco smoke either from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke. Exposure to wood-burning smoke from poorly ventilated heating systems and some industrial chemical and smoke exposures are another factor. Quitting smoking (and likely vaping) will significantly reduce your chances of developing chronic lower respiratory disease.
A stroke is a medical event in which either bleeding (hemorrhagic stroke) or a lack of blood (ischemic stroke) causes cell death within the brain, which typically results in symptoms including loss of muscle control, mobility, speech, and other functions. The main risk factor for having a stroke is high blood pressure. Other factors include tobacco use, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
To reduce your risk of having a stroke, add at least a 20-minute session of walking or another simple exercise to your daily routine. Reduce the amount of sodium in your diet and take blood pressure medications as prescribed to keep your blood pressure in check.
As people are living longer, Alzheimer’s is rapidly growing as a leading cause of death. Alzheimer’s is a neuro-degenerative disease involving plaque that sees the brain deteriorate resulting, initially, in memory loss and confusion and ultimately leads to death through respiratory failure as the brain loses the ability to regulate any function. In addition to being a leading cause of death, Alzheimer’s is one of the most expensive diseases to treat because of the high level of care advanced patients require.
Unfortunately, research indicates that a large part of one’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease is hereditary. However, some research suggests that mental and physical exercise can reduce the risk of developing the disease. Taking short walks and doing a crossword puzzle in the evenings are simple steps that could provide some protective benefit.
Diabetes occurs as two types of disease: Type I, commonly known as juvenile onset diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, and Type II, commonly known as adult-onset or non-insulin-dependent diabetes. Both are characterized by high blood sugar, resistance to insulin, and a general lack of insulin produced within the body.
Type II diabetes has a strong genetic component; however, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are substantial risk factors in the development of the disease. If you are obese, even moderate weight loss could help reduce the likelihood of developing diabetes. Likewise, adding a small amount of daily exercise confers a preventive benefit.
While it may sound shocking, influenza and pneumonia are both leading of causes throughout much of the world, including the United States. Many elderly, very young, and immuno-compromised people die from influenza and secondary infections like pneumonia every year. While the flu may not be more than an uncomfortable inconvenience for those of us who are healthy, it is a surprisingly strong virus for many.
The easiest way to prevent influenza is to get your flu vaccine every single year. Rigorous hand-washing can also help prevent the transfer of the flu. If you can, stay home when you suspect you are ill with the flu to avoid spreading it. For the immuno-compromised, consider wearing a mask in public during flu season.
Kidney disease is most commonly a secondary complication of another illness like high blood pressure or diabetes. In kidney disease, the kidneys lose their ability to efficiently remove toxins from the body while excreting them in the urine as they should. In advanced stages of kidney disease, mechanical dialysis is required to remove toxins from the blood.
Since kidney disease is often secondary to other conditions linked to sedentary lifestyles and obesity, it is vital to maintain overall health to reduce the risk of developing kidney disease. A balanced diet combined with at least moderate physical activity can help reduce the risk of both diabetes and high blood pressure, which will help keep the kidneys healthier.
Unfortunately, because of the stigma surrounding both mental health and suicide, the realities of suicide are challenging for many people to discuss. This silence helps to perpetuate many of the risk factors for suicide, including access to guns and feelings of isolation. It is crucial to remove the stigma of suicide and recognize it as what it truly is: the terminal stage of major depressive disorder.
To reduce the risk of suicide for you and your loved ones, normalize the discussion of mental health and depression as diseases just like cancer or diabetes. Keep guns unloaded and locked in safes, as access to firearms is linked to higher rates of suicide. In the United States, 1-800-273-8255 is the number of a 24-hour suicide prevention hotline.
Septicemia, or sepsis, is becoming a widespread leading global cause of death with the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections like MRSA. Septicemia is a systemic infection in which the body’s response to the infectious agent be it bacterial, viral, or even protozoan begins to damage the body’s own tissue, resulting in loss of limbs, tissue damage, and even death through multi-organ failure.
Sepsis cannot always be avoided, but working towards reducing antibiotic-resistant bacteria is an important step to take in reducing its frequency. When you receive an antibiotic, still complete the entire course of the medicine, even if you start to feel better immediately.
Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis are most often associated with late-stage alcoholism, but they are also commonly caused by untreated hepatitis infections. Your liver plays a crucial role in metabolizing drugs and detoxifying blood from the digestive system, so cirrhosis and other chronic liver diseases will ultimately be fatal if untreated.
To reduce your risk of chronic liver disease, reduce your alcohol intake to low or moderate levels, and seek treatment for alcoholism. Cirrhosis cannot be reversed, but further damage can be stopped. To prevent hepatitis, get all of the available vaccines, and practice safe sex. Also, it would help if you avoided or perform harm reduction for intravenous drug use.
By now you’ve surely noticed that high blood pressure, referred to medically as hypertension, is listed as a leading risk factor for many of the leading causes of death including heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease. High blood pressure is currently estimated to be the leading factor in around 18% of all adult deaths, which amounts to over 9 million dead globally.
The massive number of deaths attributable to hypertension makes it worthy of focus itself, in addition to all of the primary causes of death linked to it. Ninety to ninety-five percent of hypertension cases are attributed to diet, exercise, and other lifestyle factors. So cutting down on salt, stopping tobacco use, and exercising are all vital steps to take to reduce your risks of developing hypertension and the related diseases it contributes to.
Parkinson’s disease is a long-term neuro-degenerative disease that affects the central nervous system. The symptom most commonly associated with Parkinson’s is the characteristic tremors or trembling. Difficulty walking, rigidity, and movement issues are also common symptoms. The late stages of the disease often include dementia and severe motor impairment.
Parkinson’s itself is not typically considered a fatal disease, but it causes many life-threatening secondary complications, including falling, choking, pneumonia, and more. Parkinson’s has an active genetic component, but a healthy diet and lifestyle along with drinking coffee and tea have been shown to have protective effects.
Sadly, homicide is a leading cause of death worldwide, especially for younger people. Young men are far more likely to die by murder, but tragically women, transgender, and non-binary people are also often murdered as part of domestic violence. Firearm homicides continue to be a staggeringly large cause of death in the United States, through both mass shootings and single homicides.
There is no way to prevent homicide, but people experiencing domestic violence should be believed and supported. Adequate access to shelters and supportive services does make homicide less likely for those being abused. Keeping firearms unlocked and loaded in gun safes can reduce the rates of homicide as well as suicide.
Musculoskeletal disorders include any disorder that affects that musculoskeletal system, which consists of the bones, tendons, joints, nerves, and more. These disorders are incredibly common and comprise the majority of workplace injuries and disabilities each year. When severe enough, musculoskeletal disorders can also cause death and are a leading cause of death worldwide.
Commonly recognized musculoskeletal disorders include carpal tunnel syndrome, epicondylitis, and tendinitis. Paying close attention to ergonomics and avoiding repetitive motion injury are two key ways to reduce the risk of developing a musculoskeletal disorder. Stretching and proper pre- and post-workout routines can also reduce the risk of complications that arise from exercise.
The great scourge of the 20th century, HIV/AIDS is still killing many people, especially in the Global South, where medicines are not as widely available due to cost. HIV refers to the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which, if left untreated, will lead to the development of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. This condition ultimately leads to death through fatal infections of cancers like Kaposi’s sarcoma.
Thankfully, in much of the world, HIV transmission in medical settings has been eliminated. In such countries, the key to prevention is safe sex practices and avoiding or practicing harm reduction with intravenous drug use. In Global South countries, sexual violence and lack of medical equipment are barriers to stopping HIV’s spread.
Tragically, neonatal, meaning newborn, disorders are still a prevalent cause of death, especially in the Global South, where access to neonatal intensive care units is limited. Neonatal disorders cover a wide range of issues, from congenital disabilities to neonatal strokes, hypoglycemia, and inherited diseases.
Access to quality pre-birth care is a must, especially for black women who suffer disproportionately high rates of neonatal and pregnancy complications. For all experiencing pregnancy, tobacco and alcohol cessation in addition to a healthy diet and exercise can help prevent a wide range of neonatal disorders and difficulties.
While the drug of choice may vary, substance abuse continues to be a major killer throughout the world. In the United States, there is currently an opioid crisis that is claiming thousands of lives every year. Throughout the world, alcoholism continues to be a significant issue that claims millions of lives through accidents, overdose, domestic violence, cirrhosis, other liver diseases, and more.
To reduce the risk of death from substance abuse, harm reduction should be put into practice to reduce the risk of overdose, sepsis, HIV/AIDS, and other complications of intravenous drug use. Substance abuse treatment also needs to be more widely available and affordable.
Pregnancy remains quite dangerous for people with uteri, especially in the Global South but also even in places like the United States, especially for black people with uteri who are far more likely to pass away from complications of pregnancy than their white counterparts. Maternal disorders include issues like pre-eclampsia, strokes, seizures, and hemorrhages.
Access to adequate prenatal care is the most important of reducing maternal disorders. Those who are pregnant can stop alcohol and tobacco use to reduce the risk of issues like pre-eclampsia, in addition to a healthy diet, limited pregnancy weight gain, and exercise.
Infectious diseases, as a broad category, include all of those diseases transmissible between humans and from insect and animal reservoirs to humans. While we often may feel like we have primarily eradicated infectious diseases other than the common cold and flu, in reality, even ancient diseases like the Bubonic Plague kill people every year.
While infectious diseases are more likely to kill people in the Global South due to the indigenous disease vectors, the impacts of climate change and colonialism, and the lack of adequate medical facilities, all of the world’s population is subject to infectious disease. Keeping up with vaccines and practicing good hand-washing hygiene can help mitigate the risk.
There are few types of deaths more tragic than SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. With SIDS, seemingly healthy babies die suddenly and unexpectedly. While back sleeping and removing blankets and pillows from cribs seem to reduce the risk, the mechanisms of the disease are still not entirely understood.
To reduce the risk, always remember to put your baby “back” to sleep, meaning lying on their back. Do not leave bottles, blankets, pillows, or stuffed animals in the crib. Not using tobacco during and after pregnancy seems to have a protective effect against SIDS as well.
Those of us in the United States of America often deal with the health effects of overeating combined with a sedentary lifestyle, but in many parts of the Global South hunger and malnutrition are still severe problems that kill countless people, especially children, every year. Starvation alone kills many, and nutritional deficiency leads to anemia and many other health issues that can lead to death.
While none of us possess the ability to stop worldwide famine ourselves, supporting organizations like Heifer International that help build local food security. Starting your own backyard gardens to support local food pantries are steps we can all take to help prevent starvation and malnutrition deaths.
Despite the numerous efforts to eradicate it over the years, many of which have caused irreparable climatological damage, the malaria mosquito continues to wreak havoc throughout much of the Global South.
If you live in a region where malaria is endemic or plan on traveling in one, be prepared to pack and religious apply heavy-duty insect repellents. Sleeping nets are also a must at night, especially in areas with houses that aren’t well sealed or insulated. Mefloquine, which is related to quinine, is recommended as prophylaxis before, during, and after travel to areas in which malaria is endemic.
While the days of cholera may seem long past to many of us, cholera is still a reality in many parts of the Global South. Contaminated water is the vector for cholera, and many areas in the Global South still struggle to access clean water, an issue that will only worsen as climate change threatens our world’s reservoirs. Other causes of diarrheal disease death include viruses like Norwalk and cytomegalovirus as well as parasitic infections.
If traveling to an area where cholera and other waterborne infections are endemic, bring your own supply of bottled water and water purifying equipment or chemicals. You should always boil municipal water before consuming it. For those who live in such areas, it is crucial that we all continue to advocate for all humans’ right to clean, potable water.
The year is 2019 and Measles is making a triumphant comeback across Europe and the United States. While this wasn’t a sentence anyone expected to have to write in 2019, it is the unfortunate reality thrust upon us by those who refuse immunizations and threaten the concept of herd immunity that protects people who are unable to get vaccines and those for whom they are ineffective.
There is a proven, safe, and effective way to present the Measles infection, which is to vaccinate yourself and your children. Measles is an incredibly contagious disease that, when reintroduced to a population, will spread rapidly due to its highly infectious aerosolized droplet transmission route. Not only can Measles cause death, but it can also cause permanent blindness and devastating secondary effects like subacute sclerosing panencephalitis or SSPE.
In addition to Measles, many other childhood diseases like diphtheria, pertussis (commonly known as whooping cough) and others are making a comeback thanks to the drop-off in vaccination rates in the western world. In the Global South, many childhood diseases were never adequately eradicated or controlled, and many continue to kill children who lack access to adequate medical care routinely.
Continuing standard immunizations for all children in order to preserve herd immunity is the single most effective choice that can be made, worldwide, to prevent the resurgence and continued existence of devastating childhood diseases that are entirely preventable.
This disease is long reviled and feared, and even occasionally trendy — looking at you, Victorian England. Tuberculosis has been destroying the lungs and leading to premature death for many centuries. Some also speculate that this disease, in part, gave rise to the common myths around vampires. What is far scarier than vampires, however, is the fact that some strains of tuberculosis are now showing signs of antibiotic resistance, which could make the old-timey disease a brand new public health menace.
Thankfully, tuberculosis is relatively difficult to spread. If you are diagnosed, take all of your medicines for the entire length of time required by your doctor. You should wear a mask, wash your hands frequently, and avoid prolonged contact with immuno-suppressed people, the elderly, and young children.
The vast majority of leading causes of death on this list are caused by lifestyle choices such as smoking or substance use, a poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, or genetic factors. However, drowning is another tragically avoidable cause of death that claims a surprisingly large number of lives around the world each year.
Giving children swimming lessons and water safety courses is a great way to instill the fundamentals of water safety at a young age. For adults, always wear life preservers when on the water. Don’t drink and boat or swim. If swimming in an area where riptides are present, make sure you have completed training on how to escape that dangerous form of current.
Meningitis refers, broadly, to an inflammation of the meninges, which comprise the protective membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis can be caused by numerous infectious agents, including bacteria and viruses. The most common form varies by region, but all areas of the world can experience Meningitis infections.
One of the easiest ways to prevent an infection is through using all of the available immunizations, including mumps, meningococcal, and Hib vaccines. College students in the US are typically encouraged to receive the meningococcal vaccine due to the close living quarters.