The World's Leading Cause of Death

Planet Earth in the shape of a heart
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You might think that the leading cause of death across the globe is some infectious disease, or some combination of infectious diseases, or even cancer. But thanks to exportation of the Western diet to the far reaches of the globe, combined with global increases in obesity and the sedentary lifestyle, the leading cause of death in the United States and around the world is one and the same: cardiovascular disease.

Scope of the Problem

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death not only for adults in the United States, but across the world. CVD is responsible for one out of every three deaths in the United States, and for 30% of all deaths worldwide. And, as the American Heart Association (AHA) notes, CVD kills more people than all forms of cancer combined.

The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that more people around the world die annually from CVD than from any other cause. The WHO estimates that 17.5 million people died from CVD in 2012—representing 31% of all deaths globally.

Additionally, this is certainly not a problem that is limited to developed and industrialized countries. According to the WHO, over three quarters of CVD deaths take place in low- and middle-income countries.

What Is Cardiovascular Disease?

The term cardiovascular disease, or CVD, refers to disease of the heart and blood vessels.

This includes the blood vessels that supply the brain, so CVD also includes cerebrovascular disease, which encompasses strokes and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs). Other specific conditions included under the broad diagnosis of CVD are: high blood pressure, or hypertension; coronary artery disease; valvular heart disease, which is disease affecting the heart valves; congenital heart disease, which is heart disease that is present at birth—essentially, birth defects affecting the heart; heart failure; peripheral arterial disease (PAD); and many others.

The Good News

The good news, according to the AHA, is that an estimated 80% of CVD is entirely preventable. This means that there are risk factors for CVD that can be identified and modified so that the disease may be prevented. Obesity is one of these risk factors.

How Does Obesity Cause Cardiovascular Disease?

Obesity has been found to cause a number of cardiovascular disorders, including high blood pressure, heart failure, and coronary artery disease. Obesity also causes high cholesterol and diabetes, which in turn are risk factors for CVD. This has been found to be true in both children and adults.

Obesity is also considered to be a starting point for heart failure, and is a risk factor for atrial fibrillation, which is a cardiac rhythm disorder that puts patients at high risk for stroke.

Adding insult to injury, obesity also increases inflammation throughout the body, and inflammation has been found to play a major role in atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease. Obesity thus can affect all aspects of the cardiovascular system.

Preventing Cardiovascular Disease

The first step toward preventing CVD is to know your cardiovascular risk factors. While there is nothing you can do about your age or family history, you can quit smoking, get enough sleep, manage stress, control your blood pressure and cholesterol, get enough exercise, and make healthy lifestyle choices whenever possible. Losing as little as 5% of excess weight can significantly reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease and for other risk factors, like high blood pressure and diabetes, that also lead to CVD.


Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs). World Health Organization fact sheet. Accessed at on April 27, 2015.

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Yancy CW, Jessup M. Bozkurt B, Butler J, et al. 2013 ACCF/AHA guideline for the management of heart failure: a report of the American College of Cardiology Foundation/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. Circulation 2013 Jun 5 [Epub ahead of print].

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