Explanation & Prevention Methods for the Top 5 Leading Causes of Death in the U.S.A

Though the United States is renowned as one of the most medically advanced nations in the world, the diseases most frequently responsible for the deaths of Americans have remained consistent for at least the past five years, and have been plaguing the country for at least the past fifty.[1] Just ten causes are responsible for nearly 75% of all deaths in the U.S., the top three of which account for over 50% of all deaths in the country.[2] In this post, we will focus on the top five most common causes of death in the U.S. in order to better understand these diseases and how best to prevent them. Here’s a brief overview of them:

Heart Disease

Though heart disease has declined over the last three decades, it has still topped the list for years now, and its death rate has plateaued since 2011 instead of decreasing.[3] Under the umbrella of heart disease are blood vessel diseases, such as coronary artery disease, heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias), and congenital heart defects.[4]

What happens? Excluding cases of congenital heart defects, heart disease occurs when there is plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries, causing them to narrow or be blocked. This makes it more difficult for blood to flow, and can lead to chest pain, a heart attack, or a stroke.

Prevention methods: Know the major warning signs and symptoms of a heart attack, eat a diet that is low in salt, refined sugars, fat, and cholesterol, exercise regularly, avoid alcohol in excess, and take steps to reduce stress levels.


Though cancer comes in many forms, lung cancer accounts for far more deaths than any other cancer in both men and women.[5] Following lung cancer, colon and rectal cancer, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, and prostate cancer have the highest mortality rates.[6]

What happens? Cancer is characterized by the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. When the spread is incapable of being controlled, it can interfere with essential, life-sustaining systems and result in death.

Prevention methods: Avoid smoking, alcohol in excess, and excessive sun exposure, maintain a nutritious diet, and regularly take medical examinations, especially if you have a history of cancer in your family.

Chronic lower respiratory diseases

Largely due to smoking, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) makes up the majority of deaths in this category.[7] However, it also includes deaths from chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma.[8]

What happens? Chronic lower respiratory diseases cause airflow blockage and breathing-related issues, leading to difficulty breathing, a persistent cough with phlegm, and frequent chest infections.[9]

Prevention methods: Quit smoking, avoid second-hand smoke, and avoid air pollution and chemical fumes.


This category covers all unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle accidents, unintentional drug overdoses, and falls. The largest proportions of accidental deaths are from motor vehicle accidents and overdoses, the latter of which is on the rise due to the growing epidemic of heroin and opioid painkiller addiction.[10]

Prevention methods: By their nature, accidents are unintentional, but a greater focus on road safety, consistent seat-belt use, improved awareness of the dangers while driving intoxicated, and a lower issuance rate of opioid painkillers by healthcare providers can potentially lower death rates in this category.


Strokes, also known as cerebrovascular disease, used to be the third leading cause of death, but numbers have dropped substantially since treatment has improved and prevention methods have been more successful.[11] However, every year more than 795,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke, proving it is still a very real problem.

What happens? A stroke is similar to heart disease in that blood vessels are blocked, except instead of restricting access to the heart, a stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted or reduced. This deprives the brain of oxygen and nutrients, and can lead to hemorrhaging and brain aneurisms.[12]

Prevention methods: Know the major warning signs of a stroke, eat a healthy diet (low in cholesterol), get enough exercise, control blood pressure, no smoking, and limit alcohol use.

Though these five diseases are all important to understand, there are five more that don’t fall far behind, and may even be on the rise in years to come. In our next post, we will focus on numbers 6 through 10 on the list of leading causes of death in the United States.



















[1] Brophy Marcus, Mary, “The top 10 leading causes of death in the U.S.,” CBSnews.com, June 30, 2016, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-leading-causes-of-death-in-the-us/

[2] Nichols, Hannah, “The top 10 leading causes of death in the United States,” Medicalnewstoday.com, Feb 23, 2017, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/282929.php

[3] Brophy Marcus, “The top 10 leading causes”

[4] “Diseases and Conditions: Heart disease,” Mayoclinc.org, n.d. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/basics/definition/con-20034056

[5] “Common Cancer Types,” National Cancer Institute, Feb. 13, 2017, https://www.cancer.gov/types/common-cancers

[6] Ibid

[7] Brophy Marcus, “The top 10 leading causes”

[8] Ibid

[9] Nichols, “The top 10 leading causes”

[10] Brophy Marcus, “The top 10 leading causes”

[11] Ibid

[12] Nichols, “The top 10 leading causes”