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Science Figures Interpreted and Analyzed by RealClearScience

Top 10 Causes of Death in the U.S.

By Alex B. Berezow

There's a cynical saying in the news media: "If it bleeds, it leads." That's why national and local news broadcasts usually start with murders, car accidents, terrorist attacks, fires and other horrible tragedies. Death, while not a popular subject, definitely gets people's attention.

The media, and the public at large, also has a tendency to exaggerate small (but catastrophic) risks, while downplaying substantial (but less "sexy") risks. That helps explain our national obsession with terrorism, even though you are much likelier to die in a car accident. And as scary as mass shootings are, you are more than twice as likely to die from suicide (12.4 deaths per 100,000) than homicide (5.3 deaths per 100,000). (Gun homicides cause 3.6 deaths per 100,000.)

Suicide is actually the #10 leading cause of death in the U.S. (See chart.)

What's truly striking about this list is that most of it -- including the top four -- can be attributed to genetics, lifestyle and/or old age. (In 1900, the top three causes of death were due to infectious diseases.) Even #5, unintentional injuries, is largely due to our lifestyle: nearly one-third of those deaths are due to car crashes and nearly another one-third are due to accidental poisonings.

We all have to die (and pay taxes). But this data suggests that we are at least partially in control of how we die. And that's actually quite uplifting... well, as uplifting as death stats can be.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "QuickStats: Number of Deaths from 10 Leading Causes — National Vital Statistics System, United States, 2010." MMWR 62 (08): 155. (Also: Extensive data can be found in this PDF.)

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