How Death Rates Indicate Risk of Diseases and Illnesses

Which causes of death have the highest death rates?

doctor with stethoscope and patient
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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 genders, ethnicities, educational backgrounds and more. What gets tricky is trying to get a sense of your risk for, say, heart disease versus cancer. Which disease should you be most worried about? Which should you work most on preventing?

Comparative Death Rates for Common Causes of Death

To answer those questions, researchers looked at the National Health Interview Survey, a huge database that collects information from people to reflect the demographic makeup of the United States. Researchers 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 10-year period. They looked at the causes of death: heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer and other causes, and this is what they found:

  • Gender. At all ages, men were at a higher risk for death over the 10 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 10 years. In other words, smokers at 45 years of age had the same death rate as non-smokers at 55.
  • Heart disease. For men who never smoked, heart disease was the single largest cause of death from age 50 and up. The death rate of heart disease of male non-smokers was higher than the combined death rates for lung cancer, colon cancer and prostate cancer at any age.
  • Lung Cancer. 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 and colon cancer.
  • Breast cancer. For women under the age of 60, the risk of death from breast cancer is about the same as the risk from heart disease.
  • Lung cancer and heart disease. For women over the age of age 60, heart disease is the leading cause of death. Women who smoke are more likely to die from heart disease or lung cancer than 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 is a reminder that heart disease is a big, big deal. It is the number one killer of non-smoking men age 50 and older and for non-smoking women age 60 and older.

We tend to focus on and hear much more about cancer, but heart disease is still enemy number one. If you avoid or quit smoking and take care of your heart, you're taking valuable steps in the right direction. 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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