The Top 10 Causes of Death in the United States

The latest CDC data on U.S. mortality rates, as of 2011

Man & Woman
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Most human beings fear death and, particularly, the thought of dying in a gruesome or painful manner. The idea of a Jaws-like shark attack while swimming in the ocean, for example, preys upon the imagination of many people, but your overall odds of dying in this manner actually make such fears relatively unjustified. Between 1959-2010, for example, shark attacks along U.S. coastal states accounted for 26 deaths while, during this same period, roughly 2,000 people died after lightning struck them in the same geographic area.

Human nature such that it is, however, each of us will probably continue to harbor our specific, less-likely-to-happen death phobia despite the objective, fact-based data annually issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that reflect the actual causes of death of U.S. citizens each year -- the things that will probably continue to kill the majority of Americans in the future.

This article presents the latest CDC data on the top 10 causes of death in the United States, as of 2011 (the most recent official figures; see below for information about the nature and sources of these data). These 10 causes of death accounted for 74% of all U.S. deaths in 2011.

10. Suicide
Tragically, 39,518 people inflicted deadly harm upon themselves in 2011 (1.6% of all U.S. mortalities). This number represented a 3% increase versus the 2010 suicide figure. White males of all ages are significantly more likely to take their own lives in the United States, with 28,103 committing suicide in 2011.

9. Kidney Disease
Various forms of kidney disease, such as nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis, accounted for the deaths of 1.8% of the U.S. population in 2011 (45,591 people). This represents a 9.7% decrease versus 2010 figures, but the CDC cautions that this decline might partly arise from "coding-rule changes" implemented in 2011, i.e., this statistical fall might be due to how/where this cause of death is recorded categorically.

8. Influenza & Pneumonia
Most common during the winter season, the virus-based influenza or "flu" spreads easily from person to person and can even result in pneumonia (among other causes), a serious inflammation/infection of the lungs. In 2011, 53,826 Americans died from influenza and pneumonia (2.1% of all deaths that year), an increase of 7.4% versus 2010.

7. Diabetes
Diabetes mellitus accounted for 2.9% of all U.S. deaths in 2011 (73,831 people). Diabetes can also cause other health issues, such as kidney failure and heart problems, which can impact the cause of death identified on the CDC's annual figures. Unfortunately, the 2011 figure represents a 6.9% increase versus the number of diabetes-related deaths in 2010. Similar to the statistical decrease in kidney disease (see above), this increase in CDC-identified diabetes deaths might partly arise from "coding-rule changes" implemented in 2011, i.e., this statistical rise might be due to how/where this cause of death is recorded categorically.

6. Alzheimer's Disease
The sixth leading-cause of death in the United States in 2011, Alzheimer's disease resulted in 84,974 deaths -- 3.4% of all U.S. mortalities that year and an increase of 1.8% versus 2010. This form of dementia progressively destroys the brain's nerve cells (neurons), and increasingly limits an individual's ability to remember things, think clearly and perform basic human functions, such as walking.

5. Accidents
Unintentional injuries accounted for 5% of all U.S. deaths in 2011 and claimed the lives of 126,438 people -- an increase of 4.6% versus the previous year. A relatively broad category, the CDC includes the following type of accidents: motor vehicle and other land-transport accidents; accidents that occur on water, in the air or in space; falls; the accidental discharge of firearms; exposure to fire, smoke or flames; poisoning or exposure to noxious substances; and other and unspecified non-transport accidents.

4. Stroke
Cerebrovascular diseases, such as a stroke or a transient ischemic attack, happen when the blood supply to the brain is diminished, depriving it of the oxygen and essential nutrients it requires for proper functioning. In 2011, 128,932 Americans died from cerebrovascular diseases (5.1% of all deaths that year), a decrease of 0.4% versus 2010.

3. Chronic lower respiratory disease
Asthma, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and emphysema are examples of a chronic lower respiratory disease (CLRD), which causes breathing-related problems and airflow blockages to the lungs. In 2011, 142,943 people died across the United States from a CLRD, representing a 3.5% increase versus the previous year, and 5.7% of all deaths in 2011.

2. Cancer
Malignant neoplasms -- the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells -- can occur throughout the human body, which accounts for the many forms of cancer possible, such as colon, prostate, breast, pancreatic, leukemia, ovarian, skin, etc. According to the CDC, the number of deaths from malignant neoplasms increased 0.3% in 2011 versus the previous year, and accounted for 22.9% of all deaths (576,691 people) that year.

1. Heart Disease
The leading cause of death for men and women in the United States (and worldwide) remains diseases of the heart. While there are many causes, smoking, high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure all contribute significantly to heart disease. In 2011, 23.7% of all U.S. mortalities were due to heart disease (596,577 people), a decline of 0.2% versus the previous year.

Nature and Sources of Data
All of the data above are based upon the CDC's estimated U.S. population figure as of July 1, 2011, which stood at 311,591,917 citizens. (That estimate is based on the 2010 U.S. Census.)

The number of deaths in the United States for 2011, according to the CDC, totaled 2,515,458 people. This figure is based on all death certificates filed in 2011 in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, as processed by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics.

Related Articles of Interest:
6 Common Death Fears

"Shark attack deaths: How common are they?" by Doyle Rice, June 15, 2015. USA Today. Retrieved July 22, 2015.

"Deaths: Leading Causes for 2011," by Melonie Heron, Ph.D., July 27, 2015. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved July 27, 2015. Author's collection.

"The top 10 causes of death," May 2014. World Health Organization. Retrieved July 27, 2015.

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