The World's 9 Leading Causes of Death

Despite wide differences between the richest and poorest countries in the world, the leading causes of death remain widely the same across the globe.

Despite wide differences between the richest and poorest countries in the world, the leading causes of death remain widely the same across the globe.

To be sure, conditions such as Malaria and Tuberculosis are among the leading causes of death in poor countries, but fade from the list of major public health concerns in richer countries. However, many of the leading causes of death in poor countries also plague wealthy countries, such as stroke and lower respiratory infections.

The World Health Organization tracks cause-of-death data from year-to-year. The agency says tracking such data is one of the most important ways to gauge the effectiveness of public health programs, and it helps public health agencies direct their resources to the most pressing problems.

WHO notes that its data are most complete for high-income countries, which have the resources to carefully track cause-of-death statistics. For poorer countries, WHO had to rely on estimates.

What follows is a list of the 9 leading causes of death from 2012, the most recent year for which WHO has made data available. Following the statistics about each cause is a short discussion of how the disease’s prevalence varies depending on a country’s relative wealth.

All data are from the WHO, unless otherwise noted.

2012 Deaths: 1.3 million

Percentage of Deaths Globally: 2.2%

Road injuries don’t make the Top 10 causes of death in high-income countries, lower-middle-income countries, or the lowest-income countries. However, it remains a significant cause of death in many nations, and is the 7th-leading cause of death in upper-middle-income countries, according to WHO. The United States’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said 33,561 Americans died in highway accidents in 2012.

2012 Deaths: 1.5 million

Percentage of Deaths

: 2.7%

Diabetes accounts for 20 deaths per 100,000 people in the highest-income countries, 23 deaths per 100,000 people in upper-middle-income countries, and 22 deaths per 100,000 people in lower-middle-income countries. It’s not among the Top 10 causes of death in the poorest countries.

2012 Deaths: 1.5 million

Percentage of Deaths

: 2.7%

Diarrheal diseases are another cause of death that appears to be highly dependent on the general wealth of a given country. The category is the third-leading cause of death in low-income counties, killing 53 people per 100,000 residents. However, it doesn’t even make the Top 10 in upper-middle-income countries and high-income countries. The category of diseases used to be in the Top 5 causes of death overall, though it’s fallen somewhat in recent years.

1.5 million

Percentage of Deaths

: 2.7%

AIDS and the virus that causes it killed 65 people per 100,000 residents in poor countries in 2012, and 23 people per 100,000 residents in lower-middle-income countries. In 2010, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 15,529 died of AIDS and approximately 636,000 people overall had the diagnosis.

1.6 million

Percentage of Deaths

: 2.9%

Trachea, bronchus, and lung cancers are a larger problem in higher-income countries. They are responsible for 49 deaths per 100,000 people in high-income countries, and 31 deaths per 100,000 people in upper-middle-income countries. The disease doesn’t make the Top 10 lists for lower-middle-income countries or low-income countries.

2012 Deaths: 3.1 million

Percentage of Deaths

: 5.5%

Lower respiratory infections are on the list of top killers in all 4 income categories. However, it’s the leading cause of death in the lowest-income countries, killing about 91 people per 100,000. To put that in perspective, the next-leading cause of death in those countries was HIV/AIDs, which killed 65 people per 100,000. In the wealthiest countries, lower respiratory infections kill about 31 people per 100,000.

2012 Deaths: 3.1 million

Percentage of Deaths

: 5.6%

COPD killed almost exactly the same number of people in 2012 that it did in 2000. It causes the highest rates of death in middle-income countries, with about 50 deaths per 100,000 people in upper-middle-income countries or 52 deaths per 100,000 people in lower-middle-income countries. It doesn’t make the Top 10 causes of death in the poorest countries.

2012 Deaths: 6.7 million

Percentage of Deaths

: 11.9%

The top 2 causes of death in the world killed almost as many people as the other 7 on this list combined. Stroke kills 95 people per 100,000 in high-income countries, and about 130,000 Americans each year, according to the CDC. Upper-middle-income countries had a stroke-death rate of 126 per 100,000 people, making it the leading cause of death in those countries.

2012 Deaths: 7.4 million

Percentage of Deaths

: 13.2%

Ischemic heart disease is by far the leading cause of death in high-income countries, killing 158 people per 100,000 people (compared to 95 death per 100,000 people for stroke). It’s the second-leading cause of death in upper-middle-income countries (behind stroke), and the leading cause of death in lower-middle-income countries (95 deaths per 100,000 people). Ischemic heart disease is somewhat less of a problem in the poorest countries, where it kills 39 people per 100,000.

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