How we die: the most common causes of death worldwide

How we die: causes of death worldwide
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Nearly half of all causes of death worldwide are related to four major diseases: cardiovascular disease (ischemic heart disease, stroke), respiratory disease (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections), various cancers and neonatal conditions (birth asphyxia and trauma, neonatal sepsis and infections, and complications of premature birth), according to WHO’s World Health Statistics 2019. Let’s analyse how we die in detail.

Most common causes of death worldwide

Deaths from tracheal, bronchial and lung cancer have increased significantly over the last decade. Mortality from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia has also increased to the point that it is now the eighth most common cause of death, especially among women. In addition, deaths from diabetes have increased by 70% and are now the ninth most common cause of death in the world.

The statistics show that we are gradually reducing deaths from infectious diseases, a battle still to be fought in underdeveloped countries. That is why the focus is now on the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung diseases as the major challenge of the next decade to further increase life expectancy for all humanity.

How we died in 2019, according to WHO

Rank Cause Deaths (000s) % of total deaths Cumulative % of total deaths CDR (100.000 popul.)
0 All Causes 55.416 100,0 100,0 718,9
1 Ischaemic heart disease 8.885 16,0 16,0 115,3
2 Stroke 6.194 11,2 27,2 80,4
3 Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease 3.228 5,8 33,0 41,9
4 Lower respiratory infections 2.593 4,7 37,7 33,6
5 Neonatal conditions 2.038 3,7 41,4 26,4
6 Trachea, bronchus, lung cancers 1.784 3,2 44,6 23,1
7 Alzheimer disease and other dementias 1.639 3,0 47,6 21,3
8 Diarrhoeal diseases 1.519 2,7 50,3 19,7
9 Diabetes mellitus 1.496 2,7 53,0 19,4
10 Kidney diseases 1.334 2,4 55,4 17,3
11 Cirrhosis of the liver 1.315 2,4 57,8 17,1
12 Road injury 1.282 2,3 60,1 16,6
13 Tuberculosis 1.208 2,2 62,3 15,7
14 Hypertensive heart disease 1.149 2,1 64,4 14,9
15 Colon and rectum cancers 916 1,7 66,0 11,9
16 Stomach cancer 831 1,5 67,5 10,8
17 Self-harm 703 1,3 68,8 9,1
18 Falls 684 1,2 70,0 8,9
19 HIV/AIDS 675 1,2 71,2 8,8
20 Breast cancer 640 1,2 72,4 8,3

Cancer deaths

For a few years now, cancer has been the second most deadly disease and, despite improved detection and treatment, it has taken the lives of nearly ten million people worldwide by 2020. Lung cancer causes most of these deaths and is the sixth most common cause of death with almost 1.8 million deaths in 2020, followed by colon, liver, stomach and breast cancer.
In Central America cancer has killed 126,000 people in the last year, in South America it has taken more than 521,000 lives and in the United States it has accumulated almost 700,000 deaths in the last year. In Europe one in four deaths is due to cancer and in Spain it was the leading cause of death among men (297.8 deaths per 100,000), and the second among women (186.7). The three most deadly were lung cancer (22,980 deaths), colon cancer (16,470 deaths) and pancreatic cancer (7,568 deaths). The United Kingdom recorded 36,518 deaths from lung cancer, 21,682 from colon cancer and 13,168 from prostate cancer.

How we die: causes of death worldwide

Deaths from infectious diseases

Deaths from infectious diseases have been significantly reduced in the last decade. Although improvements in treatment and prevention are not progressing at the same pace in the poorest countries, communicable diseases have been relegated to the low end of the list of the most common causes of death in the world.

This medical success has one exception: pneumonia and other respiratory tract infections are the fourth leading cause of death worldwide. Despite a reduction of half a million victims over the past ten years, respiratory infections remain extremely lethal diseases, killing approximately 2.6 million people worldwide each year.

The outbreak of the coronavirus has marked a turning point in this trend.

The outbreak of the coronavirus has also marked a turning point in this trend. Covid-19 has killed 1.8 million people worldwide and, although official statistics have not yet been published, everything points to the coronavirus being the fifth or sixth most common cause of death in 2020.

Deaths from cardiovascular diseases

Heart disease has been the leading cause of death worldwide for 20 years and, far from declining, deaths are on the rise with an increase of more than 2 million deaths in the last ten years. Heart diseases now account for 16% of all recorded deaths.

Cardiovascular diseases affect mostly low- and middle-income countries: more than 80% of deaths from cardiovascular diseases occur in these countries. In contrast, Europe has seen a relative decline in heart diseases with a 15% drop in deaths.

How we die according to our income

There are great differences in the causes of death depending on the wealth of the country. In high-income regions, mortality from infectious diseases has been reduced, but in underdeveloped countries they are still six of the most common causes of death.

Despite a decline in the total number of deaths worldwide over the past decade, WHO warns of a general slowdown or stagnation in progress against infectious diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.

Causes of death in developed countries

In high-income countries the leading cause of death is ischemic heart disease, although the total number of deaths has fallen by 16% over the past ten years (327 000 deaths). Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias continue to increase and are now the second leading cause of death (814,000 deaths in 2019) ahead of stroke deaths, which have fallen by 21% (205,000 deaths). Only one communicable disease, lower respiratory tract infections, is among the 10 most common causes of death.

Unlike in other countries, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of death in the United Kingdom.

In Spain the situation is not substantially different from other high-income countries. The only thing that stands out is that colon cancer surpasses respiratory infections as the most likely cause of death. More striking is the case of the United Kingdom, where heart disease is in second place, surpassed by Alzheimer’s disease, which causes 145.3 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Respiratory infections, in this case, occupy the third place with 60 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants.

In the United States, respiratory infections have been eliminated from the top 10 most likely causes of death. However, drug use disorder is listed as the seventh most likely cause of death with 22.6 deaths per 100,000 people.

In Mexico, listed by the WHO as a high-middle income country, diabetes is the second most likely cause of death with 67.5 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Interpersonal violence is also the fifth most likely cause of death in Mexico, killing 25.4 people per 100,000 inhabitants each year. And a little further down the table, in tenth place, are traffic accidents, which in 2019 cost the lives of 12.8 people per 100,000 inhabitants.

On this WHO page you can see the top 10 causes of death for any country in the world.

How we die in underdeveloped countries

Neonatal conditions are the leading cause of death in underdeveloped countries. The average new-born mortality rate is alarmingly high at 27 deaths per 1,000 births, while in high-income countries the rate is 3 deaths per 1,000 births.

Respiratory infections and diarrhoeal diseases are the second and third most common causes of death in low-income countries. Deaths from tuberculosis have been reduced by 30% and, although ranked thirteenth worldwide, it remains one of the ten leading causes of death in the African and South-East Asian regions, where it is the eighth and fifth leading cause, respectively. Similarly, HIV deaths have been halved over the past ten years, bringing AIDS from the eighth most common cause of death to the nineteenth. However, in Africa it kills 435,000 people a year and remains fourth.

The same is true for non-communicable diseases. About 70% of cancer deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, where advanced cancer detection and lack of diagnosis and treatment are common problems. More than 90% of high-income countries provide treatment for cancer patients, while in low-income countries this percentage is less than 30%.

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