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The top 10 causes of death

Major causes of death

Q: How many people die every year?

In 2011, an estimated 55 million people died worldwide.

Q: What kills more people: infectious diseases or noncommunicable diseases?

Noncommunicable diseases were responsible for two-thirds of all deaths globally in 2011, up from 60% in 2000. The four main NCDs are cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes and chronic lung diseases. Communicable, maternal, perinatal and nutrition conditions collectively were responsible for a quarter of global deaths, and injuries caused 9% of all deaths.

Q: Are cardiovascular diseases the number one cause of death throughout the world?

Yes, cardiovascular diseases killed nearly 17 million people in 2011, that is 3 in every 10 deaths. Of these, 7 million people died of ischaemic heart disease and 6.2 million from stroke.

Q: Do most NCD deaths occur in high-income countries?

In terms of number of deaths, 26 million (nearly 80%) of the 36 million of global NCD deaths in 2011 occurred in low- and middle-income countries. In terms of proportion of deaths that are due to NCDs, high-income countries have the highest proportion – 87% of all deaths were caused by NCDs – followed by upper-middle income countries (81%). The proportions are lower in low-income countries (36%) and lower-middle income countries (56%).

Q: WHO often says that smoking is a top cause of death. Where does tobacco use affect these causes of death?

Tobacco use is a major cause of many of the world’s top killer diseases – including cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive lung disease and lung cancer. In total, tobacco use is responsible for the death of about 1 in 10 adults worldwide. Smoking is often the hidden cause of the disease recorded as responsible for death.

Q: What are the main differences between rich and poor countries with respect to causes of death?

In high-income countries, 7 in every 10 deaths are among people aged 70 years and older. People predominantly die of chronic diseases: cardiovascular diseases, cancers, dementia, chronic obstructive lung disease or diabetes. Lower respiratory infections remain the only leading infectious cause of death. Only 1 in every 100 deaths is among children under 15 years.

In low-income countries, nearly 4 in every 10 deaths are among children under 15 years, and only 2 in every 10 deaths are among people aged 70 years and older. People predominantly die of infectious diseases: lower respiratory infections, HIV/AIDS, diarrhoeal diseases, malaria and tuberculosis collectively account for almost one third of all deaths in these countries. Complications of childbirth due to prematurity, and birth asphyxia and birth trauma are among the leading causes of death, claiming the lives of many newborns and infants.

Q: How has the situation changed in the past decade?

Ischaemic heart disease, stroke, lower respiratory infections, chronic obstructive lung disease, diarrhoea and HIV/AIDS have remained the top major killers during the past decade.

Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) were responsible for two-thirds (36 million) of all deaths globally in 2011, up from 60% (31 million) in 2000. Cardiovascular diseases alone killed nearly 2 million more people in 2011 than in the year 2000.

Tuberculosis, while no longer among the 10 leading causes of death in 2011, was still among the 15 causes, killing one million people in 2011. Maternal deaths have dropped from 420 000 in the year 2000 to 280 000 in 2011, but are still unacceptably high: nearly 800 women die due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth every day.

Injuries continue to kill 5 million people each year. Road traffic injuries claimed nearly 3500 lives each day in 2011 – about 700 more than in the year 2000 – making it among the top 10 leading causes in 2011.

Q: How many young children die each year, and why?

In 2011, 6.9 million children died before reaching their fifth birthday; almost all (99%) of these deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries. The major killers of children aged less than five years were pneumonia, prematurity, birth asphyxia and birth trauma, and diarrhoeal diseases. Malaria was still a major killer in sub-Saharan Africa, causing about 14% of under-five deaths in the region.

About 43% of deaths in children younger than 5 years in 2011 occurred within 28 days of birth – the neonatal period. The most important cause of death was prematurity, which was responsible for one-third of all deaths during this period.