The world has changed considerably over the last few centuries — this is what Our World in Data shows. One thing however has remained constant through this transition: we all have to die sometime. However, the causes of death are changing as living standards improve, healthcare advances, and lifestyles change.
In this blog we attempt to answer the question ‘what do people die from?’, first by looking at the data on global causes of death followed by a selection of country-level examples. The leading causes of death across the world still vary significantly — we have therefore picked a selection of countries which highlight this heterogeneity.
First, let’s start with the question: ‘what does the world die from?’
In 2016, around 55 million people died – nearly half of these were aged 70 years or older; 27% aged 50-69; 15% aged 15-49; only 1% aged 5-14; and around 10% were children under the age of 5. In the chart below we see a breakdown of global deaths by cause, ordered from highest to lowest. This is shown in absolute numbers, and each cause as a share of total deaths. Note that this list is not exhaustive: deaths from less common causes are not shown. You can also the causes of death for any country by clicking on the chart to get to the interactive version of this chart and then chosing ‘Change country’.
The leading global killer in 2016 were cardiovascular diseases (CVD), which refer to a range of diseases that affect the heart and blood vessels: These include hypertension (high blood pressure); coronary heart disease (heart attack); cerebrovascular disease (stroke); heart failure; and other heart diseases. Cardiovascular diseases killed 17.6 million people – around one-third of all deaths.
Cancers (given as the sum of all cancer types — you can find the breakdown here) were the second largest, claiming around 9 million (16 percent or every sixth death globally).
Rounding off the top four were respiratory and diabetes-related diseases. Collectively, these are known as non-communicable diseases (NCDs): together they accounted for more than 39 million deaths (more than 70 percent) in 2016.
There are a number of causes with high death tolls which if not entirely preventable can be (and have been in many countries) dramatically reduced. More than 1.7 million newborns still died due to complications at birth. The very low neonatal death rates in high-income countries and significant progress across the world in recent decades is testament to the fact that we know how to reduce such tragedies significantly. Similarly, diarrheal diseases — which claimed 1.7 million people in 2016 and is one of the leading causes of death in children under 5 years old — are also preventable and treatable through improved water, sanitation, hygiene, and simple ‘oral rehydration salt’ (ORS) packets. Malaria has been successfully eliminated in some regions, and should with time be possible to eradicate; nonetheless, the IHME’s Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study estimates that more than 700,000 still died from malaria in 2016.
Road accidents fall within the top ten causes of death, claiming 1.3 million in 2016.
Surprising to some is that the number who die from suicide is more than double that of homicide at a global level. In fact, the number of deaths from suicides is higher than the number of deaths from all forms of violence – including homicide, terrorism, conflict, and executions – globally and across many countries across the world. You can see this relationship here. As Yuval Noah Harari notes in his TED Dialogue: « Statistically you are your own worst enemy. At least, of all the people in the world, you are most likely to be killed by yourself ».
At the bottom of the list we see deaths from natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Whilst the relative risk from such events is typically low, we must take care when using annual statistics in this case. Death rates related to disease, illness and other health factors tend to change relatively slowly over time. Natural disaster and terrorism-related deaths are different: they can vary substantially from one year to the next. This can make the annual comparison of deaths between health-related factors and volatile events more challenging and assessing the relative risk of these events can require a longer-term overview of high and low-mortality years. We cover discussion and analysis on this topic in a blog post here.
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