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Death Rates Tell Risk of Diseases and Illnesses

Which Causes of Death Have the Highest Death Rates?


Updated January 12, 2009

Death rates reflect the risk of dying from a particular cause or disease. There are death rates for cancer, heart disease, accidents and more. Death rates vary for people of different gender, ethnicity, educational background and more. What gets tricky is trying to get a sense of your risk for, say, heart disease versus your risk for cancer. Which disease should you be more focused on? Which should you work most on preventing?

Comparative Death Rates for Common Causes of Death

To answer those questions, researchers took a big database (the National Health Interview Survey) that collects information from people to reflect the demographic make-up of the country. They also looked at other databases that had information about risk (such as the American cancer Society’s Prevention Study II). Combining all this information, they calculated the risk of death for men, women, smokers, non-smokers and people of varying ages over a ten year period. They looked at these causes of death: heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer and any cause. Here’s what they found:
  • Gender: At all ages, men were at a higher risk for death over a ten year period than women (I’m still waiting for someone to recognize this as a problem and put effort into helping men catch up to women.)
  • Smoking: People who smoked accelerated their risk of dying by ten years. In other words, smokers at 45 had the same death rate as non-smokers at 55.
  • Heart Disease (men): For men who never smoked, heart disease was the single largest cause of death from age 50 on. The death rates for heart disease (for male non-smokers) were higher than the combined death rates for lung cancer, colon cancer and prostate cancer at any age.
  • Lung Cancer (men): For male smokers, the death rate for lung cancer was about the same as that of heart disease. After age 50, the death rate from lung cancer was 50 times higher than the death rates for prostate cancer or colon cancer.
  • Breast Cancer versus Heart Disease (women): For women under the age of 60, the risk of death from breast cancer is about the same as the risk from heart disease. After age 60, heart disease becomes the largest cause of death in women.
  • Lung Cancer and Heart Disease (for women smokers): For women who smoke, the changes of dying from either heart disease or lung cancer exceeds the chance of dying from breast cancer from age 40 on. By age 55, female smokers are at least 5 times more likely to die from heart disease or lung cancer than breast cancer.

What We Can Learn From Death Rate Data

From these data on death rates, what stands out most to me is a reminder that heart disease is a big, big deal. It is the number one killer for non-smoking men from age 50 and for non-smoking women from age 60. We tend to focus and hear more about cancer, but heart disease is still enemy number one. So if you avoid or quit smoking and take care of your heart, you are doing well. Add routine cancer screenings to that, and you’ll be on top of your preventive health to-do list. Here are some ways you can get everything done:


Steven Woloshin, Lisa M. Schwartz, H. Gilbert Welch. The Risk of Death by Age, Sex, and Smoking Status in the United States: Putting Health Risks in Context. JNCI Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2008 100(12):845-853.

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