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Causes of death in the USA

Table 1 therefore shows US data from 2002 on the risk of dying, with the top 15 causes of death. The risks are presented over a lifetime (average 77 years), and as annual risks.

Table 1: Top 15 causes of death in USA in 2002

  Risk is 1 in
  Annual Lifetime
Diseases of the heart 415 5
Malignant neoplasm 515 7
Cerebrovascular disease 1786 23
Chronic lower respiratory disease 2273 29
Accidents 2703 35
Diabetes mellitus 4000 52
Influenza and pneumonia 4348 56
Alzhemier's disease 5000 65
Nephriotis, nephrotic syndome, nephrosis 7143 92
Septicaemia 8333 108
Suicide 9091 118
Chronic liver disease, cirrhosis 11111 144
Primary hypertension, hypertensive renal disease 14286 185
Parkinson's disease 16667 216
Pneumonitis due to solids or liquids 16667 216

What is clear from just looking at the figures that heart disease and cancer are the largest causes of death, which is why we concentrate on prevention through healthy living, and through therapy. That doesn't mean that other causes of death are not important, or should be ignored. More information can be found at the US 5 National Vital Statistics Reports 2005 53: 15 (

Accidental deaths

Some good US figures on causes of accidental death can be found in a paper called "What are the odds of dying?" on the National Safety Council website ( Only a fraction of these are presented in Table 2.

Table 2: Causes of accidental death in the USA in 2002


Risk is 1 in

  Annual Lifetime
Any transport accident 5953 77

Car occupant

17625 228

Air and space

440951 5704
Accidental poisoning 16407 212

Any fall

17712 229

Fall from chair or bed

366804 4745

Fall on steps or stairs

180188 2331
Accidental drowning 83534 1081
Smoke, fire, flames 91149 1179
Firearms discharge 377876 4888
Lightning 4362746 56439
Cataclysmic storm 4570496 59127


Knowing the risks is one thing, understanding them is another. Figure 1 shows some selected annual risks from Tables 1 and 2 presented in John Palings perspective scale (

Figure 1: Risks in Paling Perspective Scale

Looking at risks is interesting. In the USA total road traffic accidents killed about 35,000 people in 2002 (compared with about 3,500 in the UK). While as a society and as individuals we strive to reduce this (breath tests, seat belts, air bags, road design), we accept it. We have to, otherwise we would not travel at all. The figure of about 1 in 17,000 for death seems to be a limit of acceptability. When risks get much common than that, we really begin to think about it.

But we can get exercised about other risks. Take nuclear power or radiation, as an example of how to generate much heat, and often not much light. In 2002 the number of people killed by radiation in the USA was zero.