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The top 10 causes of death


Major causes of death

Q: How many people die every year?

In 2012, an estimated 56 million people died worldwide.

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

Noncommunicable diseases were responsible for 68% of all deaths globally in 2012, up from 60% in 2000. The 4 main NCDs are cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes and chronic lung diseases. Communicable, maternal, neonatal and nutrition conditions collectively were responsible for 23% of global deaths, and injuries caused 9% of all deaths.

Q: Are cardiovascular diseases the number 1 cause of death throughout the world?

Yes, cardiovascular diseases killed 17.5 million people in 2012, that is 3 in every 10 deaths. Of these, 7.4 million people died of ischaemic heart disease and 6.7 million from stroke.

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

In terms of number of deaths, 28 million (about three quarters) of the 38 million of global NCD deaths in 2012 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 (37%) and lower-middle income countries (57%).

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 and chronic obstructive lung disease have remained the top major killers during the past decade.

Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) were responsible for 68% (38 million) of all deaths globally in 2012, up from 60% (31 million) in 2000. Cardiovascular diseases alone killed 2.6 million more people in 2012 than in the year 2000.

HIV deaths decreased slightly from 1.7 million (3.2%) deaths in 2000 to 1.5 million (2.7%) deaths in 2012. Diarrhoea is no longer among the 5 leading causes of death, but is still among the top 10, killing 1.5 million people in 2012.

Tuberculosis, while no longer among the 10 leading causes of death in 2012, was still among the 15 leading causes, killing over 900 000 people in 2012.

Maternal deaths have dropped from 427 000 in the year 2000 to 289 000 in 2013, 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 2012 – more than 600 more than in the year 2000 – making it among the 10 leading causes in 2012.

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

In 2012, 6.6 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 5 years were prematurity, pneumonia, birth asphyxia and birth trauma, and diarrhoeal diseases. Malaria was still a major killer in sub-Saharan Africa, causing about 15% of under 5 deaths in the region.

About 44% of deaths in children younger than 5 years in 2012 occurred within 28 days of birth – the neonatal period. The most important cause of death was prematurity, which was responsible for 35% of all deaths during this period.

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