What Does All-Cause Mortality Mean?

Definition and what it can tell you about risks to your health

All-cause mortality means death due to any cause. The term is commonly used in medical research where it is often expressed as the total number of deaths that occur within a specific timeframe and population.

For example, a 2022 report in the journal Tobacco Induced Diseases states that "smoking was associated with a significantly increased risk of all-cause mortality." In other words, smoking cigarettes increases the risk of dying prematurely due to cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, or any other cause.

Learning about all-cause mortality and the leading causes of death can help you make healthier choices. This article discusses the risk factors for all-cause mortality along with how to minimize your risk of certain causes.

Young girl holding grandma's hand in hospital
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Understanding All-Cause Mortality

The word mortality means death. In this context, all-cause mortality is death due to any disease, complication, or hazardous exposure (i.e. radiation).

All-cause mortality often comes up when discussing statistical results. Disease-tracking epidemiologists can use all-cause mortality in their analyses to track infection rates and the speed at which a disease is spreading.

What Does Lower All-Cause Mortality Mean?

Having a lower all-cause mortality risk is ideal, as it means you are less likely to develop or die from any cause of death, including the leading ones.

Leading Causes of Death

All-cause mortality rates help researchers understand the leading causes of death in an entire population, a particular race, or any other group.

According to the CDC, the leading causes of death in 2020 were, in rank order:

1) Heart disease: This is the leading cause of death globally and in the United States. More than four out of five cardiovascular disease (CVD) deaths are due to heart attacks and strokes. One-third of CVD deaths occur in people who are younger than 70.

2) Cancer: Lung cancers account for the most deaths, followed by colorectal, pancreatic, breast (in females), prostate (in males), then liver and bile duct cancers.

3) COVID-19: At least 350,831 people died from COVID-19 in the United States in 2020.

4) Accidental injuries was the third leading cause of death in 2019, only overtaken by COVID-19 the next year. Accidental injuries include unintentional poisonings (i.e. drug overdoses), vehicular and traffic accidents, accidental drownings, and falls.

5) Stroke: This cause shares numerous risk factors with heart disease, but it is a separate medical event that injures the brain.

6) Chronic lower respiratory diseases: Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and workplace-related chemical inhalations all fall under this category.

7) Alzheimer's disease: Related death rates increased 70% between 2000 and 2020. Choking due to dysphagia (trouble swallowing) and pneumonia present the greatest mortality risk in people with Alzheimer's disease.

8) Diabetes: This disease is linked to an increased mortality due to the fact that it poses an increased risk cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, chronic lower respiratory disease, influenza (flu) and pneumonia.

9) Influenza and pneumonia: Related deaths increased by 7.5% in 2020 despite being lower than in previous years. It's thought that global flu rates declined in 2020 due to the increased use of face masks, social distancing, and other measures related to COVID-19 prevention.

10) Kidney disease: Approximately 40% of people with chronic kidney disease are unaware that they have it.

Mortality Risk Factors

Theoretically, you may be able to reduce your all-cause mortality risk by taking measures to avoid the leading causes of death. That said, some risk factors cannot be prevented, such as your age, sex, or genes.

Here are the leading factors that increase your mortality risk broken down by causes of death. Some risk factors are common to several causes of death. Others are both risk factors and causes.

As you review this chart, it's important to remember that these are not the only risk factors.

Cause of Death  Leading Mortality Risk Factors
Heart disease Cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, poor diet and nutrition, and physical inactivity
Cancer Cigarette smoking, ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure from sunlight or tanning beds, heavy alcohol consumption, being overweight, or having obesity
COVID-19 Cigarette smoking and comorbid (simultaneous) diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and cancer
Accidental injuries Being prone to falling, driving recklessly or under the influence, and exposure to toxic chemicals
Stroke Physical inactivity, cigarette smoking, poor diet and nutrition, having obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol
Chronic lower respiratory disease Cigarette smoking, secondhand smoke, air pollution, allergens, and exposure to toxic chemicals
Alzheimer's disease Exposure to aluminum and traumatic brain injury
Diabetes Chronic poor sleep quality, cigarette smoking, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and physical inactivity
Flu and pneumonia  Having a comorbid health condition, especially dementia, congestive heart failure, diabetes, and chronic pulmonary disease
Kidney disease Diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, poor diet and nutrition, physical inactivity, and obesity

Lowering Your Mortality Risk

If your all-cause mortality risk is higher, you may be able to lower it by making some healthy adjustments to your life.

Don't Smoke

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer mortality, and between 80% to 90% of those deaths are linked to cigarette smoking.

If there is one thing you can do to drastically reduce your cancer mortality risk it's saying no to cigarettes every time. At least 70 chemicals in cigarettes and tobacco products have been identified as cancer-causing.

Quitting smoking at any age can lower the risk of cancer mortality.

Eat Healthy

A 2017 review of major studies concluded that eating optimal amounts of the following foods can reduce your all-cause mortality risk by 56%:

  • Whole grains
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Nuts
  • Fish

On the opposite end, red meat and processed meat were associated with a two-fold increased risk of all-cause mortality.

"The Seven Countries Study," published in the journal Nutrients, observed that traditional Japanese, Mediterranean, and Indo-Mediterranean diets were most beneficial for reducing all-cause mortality risk.

Both Japanese and Mediterranean diets have traditionally been rich with rice, vegetables, grains, legumes, fish, and fruit. The Japanese diet is also rich with seaweed, green tea, bran oil, soybean, egg, and tofu, while the Mediterranean diet boasts plenty of nuts and olive oil.

Stars of the Indo-Mediterranean diet include millets, porridge, beans, peppers, garlic and onion, brown rice, and spices. Turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, cloves, cardamom, and coriander are particularly beneficial in this diet due to their strong anti-inflammatory and cardio-protective effects.

Exercise Often

When you live a busy lifestyle, it can be difficult to squeeze in several quality workouts per week. But a sedentary lifestyle, characterized by lots of sitting and physical inactivity, is one of the leading risk factors for all-cause mortality.

According to the CDC, adults can reduce their all-cause mortality risk by doing at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, or 75 minutes of intense physical activity per week, as well as muscle-strengthening activities.

Moderate physical activities include walking fast, riding a bike on level ground, pushing a lawn mower, or doing water aerobics. Intense physical activities include jogging or running, swimming laps, or jumping rope.

Muscle-strengthening exercises should target all-major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms). Simple yet effective muscle-strengthening exercises you can do at home include:

  • Pushups
  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Burpees
  • Planks

Protect Your Skin

Chronic exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is extremely harmful to your skin and one of the leading risk factors for cancer.

UV rays come from the sun and artificial sources, most notably tanning beds. It should go without saying that you should avoid tanning beds at all costs. Avoiding the sun can be a little more tricky.

You can protect your skin from UV radiation by:

  • Staying in the shade as much as possible, especially mid-day when the sun's rays are strongest
  • Covering as much skin as possible when you go outside with long sleeves and pants
  • Wearing a wide-brim hat that shades your face, head, ears, and neck
  • Wearing sunglasses to protect your eyes
  • Applying sunscreen (SPF 15 or higher) to sun-exposed areas of skin, and reapplying every two hours

Get Routine Health Screenings

Prevention is key to lowering your all-cause mortality risk. Along with minimizing any preventable risk factors you may have, you should also schedule regular physical exams or health screenings with your healthcare provider.

Adults (18 to 65) should have a physical exam every one to five years at minimum. At age 65, health screenings should take place at least once per year.

Regardless of your age, you may need more frequent health screenings if you have a medical condition that requires monitoring. For example, if you have diabetes, heart disease, or kidney problems, you may need to have your blood pressure checked more frequently.

During your physical exam, your healthcare provider will take your height and weight, test your blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart rate, and check your eyes and ears.

Depending on your age, you may need to have other screenings done. For example:

  • Men over age 34 and women over age 45 should have their cholesterol tested every five years.
  • Everyone between the ages of 45 to 75 should be screened for colon cancer every five to 10 years (depending on the type of colonoscopy done).
  • Women should have a Pap smear to check for cervical cancer every two to three years.
  • Women should have a mammogram to check for breast cancer every one to two years.


All-cause mortality risk refers to the risk of death as a result of any disease, complication, accident, or exposure. Many conditions related to mortality can be avoided or delayed, or the risk reduced through healthy lifestyle choices.

Avoiding smoking, eating well, remaining active, maintaining a healthy weight, and regularly visiting your healthcare provider can make a huge difference in lowering your all-cause mortality risk.

A Word From Verywell

General health check-ups are important for everyone, not just people who are older or who have risk factors for disease. Physicals and health screenings can catch diseases in their earliest stages, when they may be able to be treated successfully.

If you have a family history of cancer, heart disease, or any other other medical condition, be sure to inform your healthcare provider so that all preventive steps can be taken to lower your mortality risk.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • Allen NB, et al. Favorable Cardiovascular Health, Compression of Morbidity, and Healthcare Costs. Circulation. 2017;135:1693-1701. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.116.026252

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By Sharon Basaraba
Sharon Basaraba is an award-winning reporter and senior scientific communications advisor for Alberta Health Services in Alberta, Canada.