Leading Causes Of Death In The U.S.

From the Get Sure website – Feb 10, 2022

We will look at four age groups:

  • Infants (0-1 year old)
  • Children & Teenagers (1-18 years old)
  • Adults under 50 years old
  • Adults over 50 years old

Note that the data and statistics used in this piece have been sourced from the CDC Wonder Database (primarily), the World Health Organization, and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Before we focus on each of the four age groups mentioned above, let’s look at an aggregate view of what causes death in the U.S.

Table: Number Of Deaths By Age Group
Age Group (Years)PopulationDeathsPer 1,000

The table above shows a breakdown by age group of the total U.S. population, the number of deaths, and the death rate (deaths per 1,000 individuals) for 2019.

As you might guess, the likelihood of dying increases by age almost uniformly, with the date rate going from just ~1 person per 1,000 when people are in their late teens, and early 20’s to 132 deaths per 1,000 for individuals over the age of 85.

Table: Leading Causes Of Death In The U.S.
Cause of DeathTotal Deaths% of Deaths
Heart Diseases874,56931%
Lung Diseases271,0169%
External Causes251,3269%
Nervous System Disorders233,7158%
Nutritional & Metabolic Diseases140,1045%
Mental & Behavioral Disorders133,9535%
Digestive System Diseases112,8884%
Urinary System Diseases72,8703%
Infectious Diseases64,7032%
Abnormal Symptoms & Findings32,3721%
Bone Diseases14,5531%
Blood Diseases10,8140%
Perinatal Period Conditions10,4120%
Congenital Malformations9,7130%
Skin & Tissue Diseases5,2290%
Pregnancy & Childbirth1,1020%
Ear Diseases900%
Eye Diseases560%

Heart disease and cancer are by far the most significant causes of death. These two accounted for 1.5 million deaths in 2019. That’s over half (53%) of the total 2.9 million deaths nationwide.

Heart disease deaths numbered 875K in 2019, which is about one in every three U.S. deaths.  Cancer caused 615K deaths (1 in 5 U.S. deaths).

Lung disease is the third leading cause (including chronic lower respiratory disease and lower respiratory infections).

External causes (accidents) and nervous system disorders (Alzheimer’s Disease) round out the top five, representing 9%, 9%, and 8% of total U.S. deaths, respectively.

In total, these five causes of death account for nearly 80%, or four in five, U.S. deaths.

Heart (Cardiovascular) Diseases

Cardiovascular disease causes heart attacks and strokes, among the top causes of death for Americans over 65 years old. These diseases can be further broken down into types as well – coronary artery disease accounts for 47% of cardiovascular-related deaths in the United States.


Cancer is a malignant growth of abnormal cells in any part of the body. There are more than 100 types of cancers, and causes can include viruses or other exposures to cancer-causing agents such as:

  • Radiation (x-rays)
  • Chemicals (including tobacco smoke and arsenic)

Lung (Respiratory) Diseases

Lung diseases include:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Pneumonia
  • Bronchitis
  • Influenza

These causes of death can affect anyone but tend to be more common among those over 65 years old.

External Causes

External causes of death are classified as injuries, accidents, homicide, suicide, and undetermined.

External causes of death are those not caused by an internal agent or an infectious agent.

Suicide deaths, motor vehicle accidents, and drug overdoses are major external causes of death. Others include violent action, falls, poisoning, suffocation, drowning, and intentional self-harm.

Endocrine Diseases

Problems with the endocrine system, including diabetes and thyroid disorders, are one of the causes of death in people aged 45 to 64.

Digestive System Diseases

Digestive system-related deaths include liver cirrhosis/failure (12%), chronic lower gastroenteritis & colitis (11%), as well as gallbladder & biliary tract disease (13%). Malnutrition can also be a cause of death (12%).

Bone Diseases

Musculoskeletal causes refer to a variety of conditions, including arthritis, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid disorders. These causes account for about 11% of deaths across all age groups.

Causes Of Death: Infants

Infant mortality is the death of an infant before their first birthday. The infant mortality rate in the United States is 5.6 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Almost 21,000 infants died in the United States in 2019. The five leading causes of infant death were:

  1. Birth defects
  2. Preterm birth and low birth weight
  3. Injuries (e.g., suffocation)
  4. Sudden infant death syndrome
  5. Maternal pregnancy complications

Common birth defects include heart defects, cleft lip and palate, and neural tube defects (e.g., spina bifida).  These diseases affect about one of every 33 babies born in the U.S.

Low birth weight can affect babies born at full term but weighed less than five pounds, eight ounces. Low birth weight results from poor nutrition and prenatal care, accounting for 11% of total infant deaths in the U.S.

Sudden infant death syndrome (or SIDS) refers to when an infant dies suddenly while sleeping without any signs of suffering or distress.

For more detailed mortality data for infants, check out this dedicated page from the CDC.

Infant Mortality Rates By State

The five states with the highest infant mortality rates in 2019 were:

  1. Mississippi (322 deaths; 11.46 rate)
  2. Louisiana (468 deaths; 9.85 rate)
  3. Alabama (449 deaths; 9.53 rate)
  4. North Dakota (77 deaths; 7.35 rate)
  5. Oklahoma (343 deaths; 7.08 rate)

Note: Infant mortality rates are calculated per 1,000. A mortality rate of 10.0 means that there were ten deaths per 1,000 infants.

Infant Mortality By State
Infant Mortality By State
Source: Centers for Disease Control (CDC)

Causes Of Death: Children & Teenagers

The five leading causes of death among teenagers are:

  1. Accidents (48%)
  2. Homicide (13%)
  3. Suicide (11%)
  4. Cancer (6%)
  5. Heart disease (3%)

Accidents account for nearly 50% of all teenage deaths. Among these, motor vehicle fatalities are the leading cause of teenagers’ deaths.

Leading Causes Of Death In Teenagers

The chart below shows the leading causes of death for the teenage population as well as a breakdown of accidental deaths by “mechanism of injury”:

  1. Motor vehicle traffic accidents (73%)
  2. Accidental poisonings (7%)
  3. Unintentional drownings (5%)
  4. Other land transport accidents (3%)
  5. Accidental discharge of a firearm (2%)

(Note: “Other unintentional deaths” make up the final 10%.)

Chart: Accidental Deaths In Teenagers
Causes of Death In Teenagers

Causes Of Death: Adults Under 50

The top causes of death for men and women in the under 50 age group are mainly preventable.

Illnesses in this age group are primarily due to lifestyle factors such as exercise, diet, and stress. Changes to your eating habits, physical activity, and lifestyle habits can help lower your mortality rate and add years to your life.

Causes Of Death & Mortality Rate: Adults 50 & Under
Causes of Death & Mortality Rate Adults 50 & Under
Causes of death for adults in their 20s, 30s, and 40s

Breakdown Of External Causes Of Death​

While disease management is essential, according to the CDC’s data on underlying causes of death, the number of deaths from external causes far outweighs the number of deaths from diseases, chronic conditions, and other leading causes (e.g., kidney disease).

COVID will be the #1 killer of adults under 50 in 2020 and 2021. In earlier years (e.g., 2019), the flu caused only 1.4% of deaths.

1. Drug Overdoses

Accidents are by far the leading cause of death in adults 50 and under.  Of these, accidental drug overdose deaths make up the largest share.

2. Motor Vehicle Accidents

The second most significant cause of external death in this age group is deaths from auto accidents.

3. Suicide

After accidents, suicide is the third leading cause of death in this age group.

While the CDC classifies suicide (and drug overdoses) as resulting from an external cause, it could be argued that those are the proximate causes.  The ultimate causes are based on brain physiology, and therefore, these deaths should be classified similarly to how they are treated, like illnesses.  In other words, the ultimate causes of these “external” deaths are brain conditions, such as bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder.  The more we see conclusive data that treatments like Esketamine and TMS therapy work for patients with MDD and suicidal ideations, the more likely we are to see these deaths re-classified.

4. Homicide

Homicide kills more people than HIV.  Protect yourself and your friends by keeping an open line of communication to resolve conflicts and report any threats or suspicions to law enforcement.

5. Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse is not just destructive emotionally; prolonged and regular alcohol abuse can lead to liver disease and cirrhosis.

Causes Of Death: Adults Over 50

It’s no surprise that the mortality rate for Americans goes up significantly as they pass 50 years old, from 6 deaths per 1,000 individuals for people in their 50s up to 207 deaths per 1,000 people for those ages 90 and above.

Deaths By Cause & Mortality Rate: Ages 50+
Causes of Death And Mortality Rate Adults 50 And Over

The leading causes of death among adults over 50 are heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases (such as bronchitis and emphysema), stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes mellitus (including both type 1 and type 2 diabetes), influenza, and pneumonia.

The good news is that with a proper diet, most diseases can be prevented or delayed. There are some simple rules that you should adhere to for the most part, including eating a lot of produce – this doesn’t mean French fries! When it comes to meat, eat lots of white meat like chicken breast, etc. Avoid fatty red meats like lean beef cuts only, please! Produce overload is significant to get the right balance of nutrients; they look a lot more appetizing.

Drug Overdose Deaths

According to the CDC, in 2020, there were more than 70,00 overdose deaths, which equates to nearly 200 overdoses every day.

These 200 daily overdose deaths are made up of:

  • 142 deaths per day were from heroin
  • 33 deaths per day from misuse of prescription opioids
  • Six due to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl
  • Four overdose deaths each day from cocaine or methamphetamine use

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