Leading Causes of Death By Age in the U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that there were more than 2.9 million deaths reported in the U.S. in 2019, with nearly two-thirds due to cardiovascular disease or cancer.

This article will detail causes of death by age group:

  • Leading causes of death for infants
  • Leading causes of death for children and teenagers
  • Leading causes of death for adults under 50
  • Leading causes of death for adults over 50
Table of Contents

1. Leading Causes of Death In The U.S.

Before we go into the age-based breakdown, let’s look at the aggregate picture of deaths in the U.S.

Number & Rate of Deaths By Age Group
Age Group (Years)PopulationDeathsPer 1,000
1-415,776,8243,6760.23
5-1441,022,3885,4970.13
15-2442,713,05629,7710.7
25-3445,945,65259,1781.29
35-4441,659,63982,9861.99
45-5440,874,873160,3933.92
55-6442,447,300374,9378.83
65-7431,483,566555,55917.6
75-8415,969,802688,02743.1
85+6,604,977873,746132.3
Total324,498,0772,833,7708.7

The table above shows a breakdown by age group of the total U.S. population, the number of deaths, and the death rate (deaths per 1,000 individuals) for 2019.

As you might guess, the likelihood of dying increases by age almost uniformly, with the date rate going from just ~1 person per 1,000 when people are in their late teens, and early 20’s to 132 deaths per 1,000 for individuals over the age of 85.

Leading Causes of Death (2019 U.S. Deaths)
Cause of DeathTotal Deaths% of Deaths
Heart Diseases874,56931%
Cancer615,17922%
Lung Diseases271,0169%
External Causes251,3269%
Nervous System Disorders233,7158%
Nutritional & Metabolic Diseases140,1045%
Mental & Behavioral Disorders133,9535%
Digestive System Diseases112,8884%
Urinary System Diseases72,8703%
Infectious Diseases64,7032%
Abnormal Symptoms & Findings32,3721%
Bone Diseases14,5531%
Blood Diseases10,8140%
Perinatal Period Conditions10,4120%
Congenital Malformations9,7130%
Skin & Tissue Diseases5,2290%
Pregnancy & Childbirth1,1020%
Ear Diseases900%
Eye Diseases560%
Other270%
Total2,854,691100%

Heart disease and cancer are by far the most significant causes of death, having accounted for 1.5 million (or 53%) of the total 2.9 million deaths in the U.S. in 2019.

Heart disease deaths numbered 874,569 in 2019, which is about one of every three U.S. deaths. Cancer caused 615,179 deaths; this is about 1 out of every 5 U.S. deaths.

Lung disease is the third leading cause (including chronic lower respiratory disease and lower respiratory infections), external causes (accidents, primarily), and nervous system disorders (Alzheimer’s Disease) round out the top five, representing 9%, 9%, and 8% of total U.S. deaths, respectively.

In total, these five causes of death account for nearly 80%, or 4 in 5, U.S. deaths.

Heart (Cardiovascular) Diseases

Cardiovascular disease causes heart attacks and strokes, among the top causes of death for Americans over 65 years old. These diseases can be further broken down into types as well - coronary artery disease accounts for 47% of cardiovascular-related deaths in the United States.

Cancer

Cancer is a malignant growth of abnormal cells in any part of the body. There are more than 100 types of cancers, and causes can include viruses or other exposures to cancer-causing agents such as:

  • Radiation (x-rays)
  • Chemicals (including tobacco smoke and arsenic)

Lung (Respirartory) Diseases

Lung diseases include:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Pneumonia
  • Bronchitis
  • Influenza
These causes of death can affect anyone but tend to be more common among those over 65 years old.

External Causes

External causes of death are classified as injuries, accidents, homicide, suicide, and undetermined.

External causes of death are ones that are not caused by an internal agent or an infectious agent.

Suicide deaths, motor vehicle accidents, and drug overdoses are major external causes of death.  Others include violent action, falls, poisoning, suffocation, drowning, and intentional self-harm.

Endocrine Disesaes

Problems with the endocrine system, including diabetes and thyroid disorders, are one of the causes of death in people aged 45 to 64.

Digestive System Diseases

Digestive system-related deaths include liver cirrhosis/failure (12%), chronic lower gastroenteritis & colitis (11%), as well as gallbladder & biliary tract disease (13%). Malnutrition can also be a cause of death (12%).

Bone Diseases

Musculoskeletal causes refer to a variety of conditions, including arthritis, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid disorders. These causes account for about 11% of deaths across all age groups.

2. Causes of Deaths: Infants

Infant mortality is the death of an infant before their first birthday.  The infant mortality rate in the United States was 5.6 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Almost 21,000 infants died in the United States in 2019. The five leading causes of infant death were:

  1. Birth defects
  2. Preterm birth and low birth weight
  3. Injuries (e.g., suffocation)
  4. Sudden infant death syndrome
  5. Maternal pregnancy complications

Common types of birth defects include heart defects, cleft lip, and palate, neural tube defects (e.g., spina bifida) – these diseases affect about one of every 33 babies born in the U.S.

Low birth weight can affect babies born at full term but weighed less than five pounds, eight ounces. Low birth weight results from poor nutrition and prenatal care, accounting for 11% of total infant deaths in the U.S.

Sudden infant death syndrome (or SIDS) refers to when an infant dies suddenly while sleeping without any signs of suffering or distress.

For more detailed mortality data for infants, check out this dedicated page from the CDC.

Infant Mortality Rates By State

Infant mortality rates are calculated per 1,000.  A mortality rate of 10.0 means that there were ten deaths per 1,000 infants.

The five states with the highest infant mortality rates in 2019 were:

  • Mississippi (322 deaths; 11.46 rate)
  • Louisiana (468 deaths; 9.85 rate)
  • Alabama (449 deaths; 9.53 rate)
  • North Dakota (77 deaths; 7.35 rate)
  • Oklahoma (343 deaths; 7.08 rate)
Centers for Disease Control: Infant Mortality

3. Causes of Deaths: Children & Teenagers

The five leading causes of death among teenagers are:

  1. Accidents (unintentional injuries)
  2. Homicide
  3. Suicide
  4. Cancer
  5. Heart disease

Accidents account for nearly 50% of all teenage deaths.  Among these, motor vehicle fatalities are the leading cause of teenagers’ deaths, representing over one-third of deaths.

Leading Causes of Death In Teenagers

The chart below shows the leading causes of death for the teenage population: (1) accidents (48%), (2) homicide (13%), (3) suicide (11%), cancer (6%), and heart disease (3%).

Among unintentional injury deaths, the top causes by mechanism of injury are:

  1. Motor vehicle traffic accident (73%)
  2. Accidental poisoning (10%)
  3. Unintentional drowning (5%)
  4. Other land transport accidents (3%)
  5. Accidental discharge of a firearm (2%)

(Note: 10% of the above are “other unintentional deaths.”)

Causes of Death In Teenagers
Source: Centers for Disease Control

4. Causes of Deaths: Adults Under 50

The top causes of death for men and women in the under 50 age group are mainly preventable.

Illnesses in this age group are primarily due to lifestyle factors such as exercise, diet, and stress.  Changes to your eating habits, physical activity, and lifestyle habits can help lower your mortality rate and add years to your life.

Causes of Death & Mortality Rate: Adults 50 & Under
Causes of Death & Mortality Rate Adults 50 & Under

Breakdown of External Causes of Death

While disease management is essential, according to the CDC’s data on underlying causes of death, the number of deaths from external causes far outweighs the number of deaths from diseases, chronic conditions, and other leading causes (e.g., kidney disease).

1. Drug Overdoses

Accidents are by far the leading cause of death in this age group.

2. Motor Vehicle Accidents

Accidents are by far the leading cause of death in this age group. The majority are from drug overdoses Knowing that 16% are from auto accidents is another cause for concern.

3. Suicide

After accidents, suicide is the second leading cause of death in this age group. Be sure if you're having trouble to reach out. There are emergency hotlines available in a crisis, but an approach to staying out of trouble is to see a counselor regularly to sort out certain issues.

4. Homicide

Homicide kills more people than HIV. Protect yourself and your friends by keeping an open line of communication to resolve conflicts and report any threats or suspicions to law enforcement.

5. Chronic Liver Disease & Cirrhosis

Alcohol abuse is not just destructive emotionally, prolonged and regular alcohol abuse can lead to liver disease.

Early health statistics suggest that COVID will be the number one killer of adults under 50 in 2020 and 2021.  However, in earlier years (e.g., 2019), influenza accounted for only 1.4% of deaths.

5. Causes of Deaths: Adults Over 50

It’s no surprise that the mortality rate for Americans goes up significantly as they pass 50 years old, from 6 deaths per 1,000 individuals for people in their 50s up to 207 deaths per 1,000 people for those ages 90 and above.

Deaths By Cause & Mortality Rate: Ages 50+
Causes of Death And Mortality Rate Adults 50 And Over
Source: National Vital Statistics System

The leading causes of death among adults over 50 are heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases (such as bronchitis and emphysema), stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes mellitus (including both type 1 and type 2 diabetes), influenza, and pneumonia.

The good news is that with a proper diet, most diseases can be prevented or delayed. There are some simple rules that you should adhere to for the most part, including eating a lot of produce – this doesn’t mean French fries! When it comes to meat, eat lots of white meat like chicken breast, etc. Avoid fatty red meats like lean beef cuts only, please! Produce overload is significant to get the right balance of nutrients; they look a lot more appetizing.

Drug Overdose Deaths

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2020, there were more than 70,00 overdose deaths.

  • This translates to nearly 200 overdoses every day of the year
    • 142 deaths per day from drugs like heroin
    • 33 deaths per day from misuse of prescription opioids and an additional six fatalities due to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl
    • Four drug overdoses each day related to cocaine or methamphetamine use
  • The highest rate is among adults aged 55–65 years

6. Frequently Asked Questions

Accidents are the leading cause of death for people aged 25-44, followed by suicide and cancer. For those 65 and older, the top causes of death are roughly the same as the top causes of death for the overall population (heart disease and cancer). This is because those 65 and older made up 74% of all deaths in 2018.
The NVDRS 2015 data showed that, among men of all races, men over 65 were the most likely to die of suicides (27.67 suicides per 100,000), closely followed by men 40–64 (27.10 suicides per 100,000). Men 20–39 (23.41 per 100,000) and 15–19 (13.81 per 100,000) were less likely to die of suicides.
The five leading causes of death in the United States are heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, and unintentional injuries. Together they accounted for 63 percent of all U.S. deaths in 2010, with rates for each cause varying greatly from state to state.

Conclusion

Causes of death in the U.S. are primarily dependent on age. While accidents start as the leading cause of death in children and teenagers, heart disease and cancer rise quickly in adults until they are by far the dominant cause of death in those over 65.

Other causes specific to the senior age group include Alzheimer’s Disease and other brain conditions, including Parkinson’s Disease, strokes, and dementia.

Educating yourself about your potential causes of death in your age group can help you adopt healthy habits (e.g., a good diet, regular exercise, tobacco and alcohol avoidance, and proper firearms storage, among others) and live a long life.

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