Heart disease is by far the leading cause of mortality in the United States, but it’s not the one that Americans are most interested in learning about, or the one most often reported in the press. Terrorism, on the other hand, is the most often reported and sparks at least some interest online, but in fact accounts for fewer than 0.01% of deaths.
There’s a major disconnect between what we actually die from, what we search for online, and what we read about in the press, according to a new study published by Our World in Data, a non-profit website published by researchers at the University of Oxford in England and the non-profit educational data organization Global Change Data Lab
Using figures from 2016, the study compares causes of death in the United States as computed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s WONDER public health database, with Google searches and coverage in the New York Times and The Guardian. Heart disease claimed some 30.2% of us that year, followed closely by cancer at 29.5%. Yet while some 37% of Google searches for causes of death concerned cancer, only 2% were for heart disease. (West Virginia holds the unenviable number-one position on a list of the states with the most heart disease.)
Other leading killers in America are, in descending order, road accidents, falls, and accidents; lower respiratory disease; and Alzheimer’s disease — these are the states where Alzheimer’s is soaring. Next are stroke; diabetes; drug overdose; kidney disease; pneumonia and influenza; suicide; and, in almost negligible amounts, homicide and terrorism.
After cancer, the leading Google searches were for suicide; road accidents, falls, and accidents; diabetes; and terrorism. Press coverage favored terrorism by a large margin — 35.6% for the Times, 33.3% for the Guardian. Next, with similar percentages for both publications, came homicide, then cancer followed by suicide for the Times, with the order reversed in the Guardian.
The study offers several explanations for the discrepancies. First, what we search online likely has a preventative aspect: We seek information about a possible cause of death that may inspire us to take measures to prevent that way of going. On the other hand, there is obviously some bias in our searches: heart disease apparently doesn’t concern us much.
In addition, the press concentrates on events worth reporting, and homicides and terrorist attacks are big news. Some other causes of death are not. There was a substantial disconnect around kidney disease, for instance. It ranks ninth on the list of causes of death, at 2.7%, but receives only 0.2% of the coverage in the Times and 0.1% in the Guardian — an 11-fold discrepancy.
As the study asks, “[W]ith an audience that expects a minute-by-minute feed of coverage, how much can possibly be said about kidney disease?” It can kill people. Life expectancy in the United States has fallen for several years in a row. And these are the states with the most premature death.