WHAT KILLS US: The Leading Causes Of Death From 1900-2010

Death rates 1900 and 2010

Photo: The New England Journal Of Medicine

The New England Journal of Medicine takes a look at the leading causes of death in the U.S. from 1900 to 2010.The change is interesting, as is our ever-increasing longevity–something that scientists think may now reverse as a result of the global obesity epidemic.

We’ve laid the findings out for you in a series of charts (and you can head over to the NEJM’s excellent interactive graphic if you want to fiddle). Thank to Sarah Kliff at the Washington Post for alerting us to this.

Before you click, here are a few questions for you:

  • What was the leading cause of death in 1900?
  • What’s the leading cause of death today?
  • How many people in 100,000 die from “accidents” each year? How has that changed?
  • How many suicides are there?

First, the big picture. These two charts show the time period from 1900 to 2010. On top, the bars show the total deaths per year per 100,000 people. The bottom shows our average life-expectancy, which continues to increase. And now on to what kills us...

Then there's cancer, which kills almost as many people.

Then lung disease.

Cerebrovascular disease (strokes, aneurysms)



Kidney disease.

Flu and pneumonia. Note how many people flu and pneumonia used to kill, way back in 1900.

Lastly, suicide. 12 people kill themselves out of 100,000 every year.

And how has all this changed? Well, in 1900, the leading cause of death was... flu and pneumonia. A reader points out that the huge spike in deaths in the late 1910s was the Spanish flu.

Tuberculosis was the second-leading killer in 1900. There's actually a fierce debate in the medical community over whether it was drugs that licked tuberculosis or changes in lifestyle.

And then there was heart disease, which killed a lot of people back then, too.

Happily, diseases of early infancy kill fewer people than they used to.

And here it is all laid out in one chart: Deaths per 100,000 people by cause, 1900 vs 2010.

But enough about death. Now check out something more uplifting...

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