Special Report

The 15 Leading Causes of Death in America

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Life expectancy at birth in the United States is now 76.1 years, the lowest it has been since 1996 – a decline due largely to COVID-19 and to the rise in drug overdoses. (These are 30 famous people who died of COVID.)

The official number of total deaths in the U.S. in 2021 was 3,464,231, which means that almost 400 people died every hour. And the 10 leading causes of death accounted for 74.5% of all those fatalities. 

To identify the leading causes of death in the United States, 24/7 Tempo reviewed age-adjusted death rates for the 15 leading causes of death in 2021 from the National Center for Health Statistics, a unit of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Causes of death are ranked according to number of deaths. (Compare these to the leading causes of death for Americans in 1900.)

Click here to see the 15 leading causes of death in America

Unsurprisingly, heart disease is once again the top killer in the country, just as it has been since 1950. The term refers to a range of illnesses that affect the heart, including coronary artery disease, which affects blood flow to the heart; heart failure, in which the heart can’t pump enough blood; and various arrhythmias. High blood pressure, often referred to as “the silent killer” because it has no obvious symptoms, can lead to heart disease. (Click here for 28 warning signs you are in bad health.)

The cause of death in second place, cancer, has also been a leading cause of death in the U.S. for many years, despite death rates from the disease going down 27% between 2001 and 2020. Cancer, which is a group of diseases characterized by the abnormal growth and spread of cells in the body, can develop in any part of the body. Lung cancer is by far the most common kind, accounting for almost a quarter of all cancer deaths, followed by colon and pancreatic cancers.

15. Parkinson’s disease
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2021: 11.6 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2021: 38,536
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2020: 12.2 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2020: 40,284
> 2020-2021 change: -4.3%

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14. Septicemia
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2021: 12.4 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2021: 41,281
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2020: 12.2 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2020: 40,050
> 2020-2021 change: 3.1%

13. Influenza and pneumonia
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2021: 12.6 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2021: 41,917
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2020: 16.3 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2020: 53,544
> 2020-2021 change: -21.7%

12. Essential hypertension and hypertensive renal disease
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2021: 12.9 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2021: 42,816
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2020: 12.7 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2020: 41,907
> 2020-2021 change: 2.2%

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11. Intentional self-harm
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2021: 14.5 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2021: 48,183
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2020: 14.0 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2020: 45,979
> 2020-2021 change: 4.8%

10. Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis (kidney disease)
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2021: 16.4 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2021: 54,358
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2020: 15.9 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2020: 52,547
> 2020-2021 change: 3.4%

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9. Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2021: 17.0 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2021: 56,585
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2020: 15.7 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2020: 51,642
> 2020-2021 change: 9.6%

8. Diabetes mellitus
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2021: 31.1 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2021: 103,294
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2020: 31.0 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2020: 102,188
> 2020-2021 change: 1.1%

7. Alzheimer’s disease
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2021: 36.0 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2021: 119,399
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2020: 40.7 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2020: 134,242
> 2020-2021 change: -11.1%

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6. Chronic lower respiratory diseases
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2021: 42.9 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2021: 142,342
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2020: 46.3 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2020: 152,657
> 2020-2021 change: -6.8%

5. Cerebrovascular diseases (including stroke)
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2021: 49.1 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2021: 162,890
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2020: 48.6 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2020: 160,264
> 2020-2021 change: 1.6%

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4. Accidents
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2021: 67.8 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2021: 224,935
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2020: 61.0 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2020: 200,955
> 2020-2021 change: 11.9%

3. COVID-19
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2021: 125.6 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2021: 416,893
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2020: 106.5 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2020: 350,831
> 2020-2021 change: 18.8%

2. Malignant neoplasms (cancer)
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2021: 182.4 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2021: 605,213
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2020: 182.8 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2020: 602,350
> 2020-2021 change: 0.5%

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1. Heart disease
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2021: 209.6 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2021: 695,547
> Age-adjusted death rate, 2020: 211.5 per 100,000 people
> Number of deaths in 2020: 696,962
> 2020-2021 change: -0.2%

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