The Top 5 Leading Causes of Death Worldwide

The world’s population has topped seven billion and grows every day. Life expectancy varies widely with geographic location. People in Monaco can expect to live over eighty-nine years while people in Afghanistan are struggling to make it to fifty. The things that cause people to die also differ with location. The prevalent causes of death correlate with the overall wealth of the country in which a person lives.

Here are the overall top killers across the globe.


1. Ischemic Heart Diseaseheart-disease

Arteries carry blood from the heart to supply nutrition and oxygen to the rest of the body. There are arteries that supply the same needs to the heart muscle itself. Cholesterol plaques build up in the walls of these blood vessels. When a plaque ruptures or gets blood clot over it, the flow of blood is stopped and the muscle area supplied by that artery dies. That is a heart attack or myocardial infarction, and it can cause immediate death.

People sometimes survive to have ongoing problems, such as heart rhythm disturbances, or heart failure that can cause death later. There’s more on heart disease here.


2. Stroke and other Cerebrovascular Disease

The mechanism for these catastrophic events is pretty similar to that which occurs with heart attacks only the end organ that is damaged is the brain.  Initial fatality is of course a concern, but people fear as much being handicapped with weakness, inability to care for themselves, being unable to communicate, or other problems that can occur if they survive a stroke.


3. Lower Respiratory Infections

Pneumonia is an infection in the end airway sacs of the lungs. This condition is spread by person to person contact and the germs are airborne. The infection can lead to poor air exchange and leave the patient needing oxygen.  Infection can spread from the lungs into the blood stream causing sepsis. Abscesses, pockets of pus, can form in the lungs or in the pleural space, the area between the lungs and the chest wall.


4. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

This category encompasses a range of conditions from COPD to emphysema. The hallmark for these conditions is change within the lungs and airways that leads to obstruction to airflow. These patients are susceptible to infections such as pneumonia. The condition can progress to complete respiratory failure. Before patients die of this condition they can be debilitated so that dressing can completely take all of their wind. Sadly, this condition is largely associated with smoking.


5. Diarrheal Diseases


Cholera and other infectious diarrhea conditions cause death primarily in poorer countries.  Dehydration, malnutrition, and electrolyte imbalances are the problems that kill people with these infections. The very young and elderly are most susceptible.


Some strides are being made in the developing countries. With educational efforts and medical support, infectious conditions like diarrhea and malaria are taking less of a toll in these areas of the world than in the past. Overall, the trends for mortality are moving toward the conditions of the wealthier countries.

Heart disease and cerebral vascular conditions are the top killers worldwide, and they are thought to be mostly preventable. Avoidance of tobacco is paramount. Recognition and control of diabetes, and hypertension is critical.  The best recommendations to improve mortality in developed countries is  for people to eat a sensible diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, reduce stress, and avoid tobacco.



About Doug Smith M.D.

Doug has been a full time physician for twenty-three years and continues to work in an emergency room setting. In addition to the day to day practice of medicine, he has a particular interest in medical education.
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