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Top 10 Causes of Death Worldwide

Dementia, diabetes, kidney disease rise in WHO rankings, but heart disease remains the top killer

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Ischemic heart disease remains the leading cause of death around the globe, accounting for about 16 percent of the 55.4 million deaths recorded in 2019, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO).

WHO's "Global Health Estimates” (GHE), which was published Wednesday, found that over the past two decades noncommunicable diseases, such as heart disease, stroke and dementia, are responsible for a faster-growing number of deaths globally than communicable diseases, like tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and diarrheal diseases.

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"These new estimates are another reminder that we need to rapidly step up prevention, diagnosis and treatment of noncommunicable diseases,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO.

Among the fastest-growing causes of global death is Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, which accounted for 1.6 million deaths in 2019, up from 584,000 in 2000. It now ranks as the seventh leading cause of death. The report notes that in high-income countries such as the United States, Alzheimer's disease and other dementias have overtaken stroke to become the second leading cause of death in 2019.

Lower respiratory infections (including pneumonia) were the deadliest group of communicable diseases and together ranked as the fourth leading cause of death, but the 2.6 million deaths in 2019 were 458,000 fewer than in 2000. Meanwhile, deaths from tuberculosis have decreased 30 percent over the 20-year span, and it is no longer in the top 10 causes.

WHO plans to include an assessment of the COVID-19 pandemic in its next report update, but it notes that more than 1.5 million people have died from the disease. In the United States, more than 285,000 deaths due to COVID-19 have been recorded, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Average life expectancy jumps to 73 from 67 in 2000

The WHO report does offer some good news: People are living longer and healthier lives. “Life expectancy and healthy life expectancy (HALE) have both increased by over 8 percent globally between 2000 and 2016,” the report states.

On average, people are living about six years longer than they were two decades ago. The average life span in 2019 was just over 73 years, compared with nearly 67 years in 2000. The gains in longevity are largely due to reductions in child mortality and in continued efforts to fight infectious diseases, according to the report.

In the U.S., average life expectancy was 78.6 years in 2019: 81.1 for women and 76.1 for men. Average healthy life expectancy in the U.S. was 68.5 years in 2019: 70.1 for women and 66.9 for men.

Disease 2020 Rank Deaths 2019 Change from 2020 2000 Rank*
Ischemic heart disease 1 8.9 million + 2.1 million 1
Stroke 2 6.2 million 730000 2
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease 3 3.2 million 242000 5
Lower respiratory infections 4 2.6 million -458000 4
Neonatal conditions 5 2 million - 1.2 million 3
Trachea, bronchus, lung cancers 6 1.8 million 578000 9
Alzheimer’s disease & other dementias 7 1.6 million + 1 million 20
Diarrheal diseases 8 1.5 million - 1.1 million 6
Diabetes mellitus 9 1.5 million 619000 12
Kidney diseases 10 1.3 million 521000 13

*These diseases fell out of the top 10 since 2000

  • Tuberculosis 7th spot to 13th
  • HIV/AIDS 8th spot to 19th
  • Road injury 10th spot to 12th

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