Causes of Death
This article was first published in February 2018. Last updated in December 2019.
56 million people died in 2017.1 What caused their death? How did the causes of death change over time and differ between different countries and world regions? And what are the risk factors that lead to early death? These are the big questions we are answering here.
- Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death globally. The second biggest cause are cancers.
- Causes of death vary significantly between countries: non-communicable diseases dominate in rich countries, whereas infectious diseases remain high at lower incomes.
- The world is making progress against infectious diseases. As a consequence more people are dying from non-communicable diseases.
- Fewer people die at a young age. Almost half of all people who die are 70 years and older.
- Leading risk factors for premature death globally include high blood pressure, smoking, obesity, high blood sugar and environmental risk factors including air pollution.
- There is a large difference between what people die from and which causes of death receive news coverage.
Definitions: Cause of death vs risk factors
It is important to understand what is meant by the cause of death and the risk factor associated with a premature death:
In the epidemiological framework of the Global Burden of Disease study each death has one specific cause. In their own words: ‘each death is attributed to a single underlying cause — the cause that initiated the series of events leading to death’.2
This is different from the deaths that happened due to risk factors. These deaths are an estimation of the reduction of the number of deaths that would be achieved if the risk factors to which a population is exposed would be eliminated (in the case of tobacco smoking, for example) or reduced to an optimal, healthy level (in the case of body-mass index).