What Are The Nation’s Leading Health Risks?

The start of a new year is often a time for looking ahead and reflecting on the past. If one of your goals is to improve your health this year, a look at the nation’s leading health threats can be a first step toward identifying behaviors — such as exercising regularly or changing your eating habits — that may help you ward off these conditions.

Longer Life Expectancy

The good news is that life expectancy is increasing. According to the most recent mortality statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 1998, life expectancy reached a record high of 76.7 years, a slight gain over life expectancy figures from the previous year.

Although life expectancy has increased in the past 30 years for all men and women, gender plays a role in determining average life spans. Women continue to outlive men by about 5.7 years. However, since the 1970s, the gender gap has slowly been narrowing. From 1900 to the late 1970s, the gulf in life expectancy for men and women widened, growing from 2 years to 7.8 years, but in the past two decades, the divide has dwindled by 2.1 years.

Race is also a factor, with whites outliving blacks by an average of 6 years. Although that figure remained steady between 1997 and 1998, the difference in life expectancy for whites and blacks has alternately widened and narrowed over the past 18 years. The gap reached its narrowest point at 5.7 years in 1982, then grew to 7.1 years in 1989, before declining to its present 6-year differential. Of interest, when adjusted for educational level, there is no difference in life expectancy for black and white men — a marker for the value of education.

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Current life expectancy rates, broken down by gender and race, are:

  • White women — 80 years
  • Black women — 74.8 years
  • White men — 74.5 years
  • Black men — 67.6 years

Among these groups, black men had the greatest gain in life expectancy, an increase of 4 years between 1997 and 1998.

Leading Causes Of Death

Although people are living longer, certain diseases take a greater toll. According to the CDC, 14 of the 15 leading causes of death for Americans of all genders, races and ages remained the same from 1997 to 1998. The only change was that hypertension (high blood pressure) became the 15th leading cause of death, whereas AIDS fell from the top 15.

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Although most of the leading causes of death remained the same, there were some changes in the rankings. Septicemia (blood poisoning) and Alzheimer’s disease flip-flopped, with septicemia moving from 12th to 11th and Alzheimer’s dropping a spot. Also, atherosclerosis (buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries) became a greater threat, climbing from 15th to 14th. Heart disease, cancer and stroke remain the nation’s top three killers.

The 15 leading causes of death for Americans of all genders, races and ages are:

By Race And Age

Although this list provides some insight into the health risks that you face, your race and age also shape which diseases pose the greatest threat. For example, although AIDS is not among the top 15 causes of death for the general population, it is the leading cause of death for black Americans aged 25 to 44. And suicide is a leading threat for 15- to 24-year-olds of all races, although it is not one of the top three causes of death for any other age group. Thus, a closer look at health threats by age and race can help you understand more precisely which conditions pose the greatest risk for you and your loved ones.

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The chart below lists the three leading causes of death by race and age.

Age All Races White Black Hispanic
1 to 4
  1. Accidents
  2. Congenital anomalies
  3. Homicide
  1. Accidents
  2. Congenital anomalies
  3. Cancer
  1. Accidents
  2. Homicide
  3. Congenital anomalies
  1. Accidents
  2. Congenital anomalies
  3. Cancer
5 to 14
  1. Accidents
  2. Cancer
  3. Homicide
  1. Accidents
  2. Cancer
  3. Congenital anomalies
  1. Accidents
  2. Cancer
  3. Homicide
  1. Accidents
  2. Cancer
  3. Homicide
15 to 24
  1. Accidents
  2. Homicide
  3. Suicide
  1. Homicide
  2. Accidents
  3. Suicide
  1. Accidents
  2. Homicide
  3. Suicide
25 to 44
  1. Accidents
  2. Cancer
  3. Heart disease
  1. Accidents
  2. Cancer
  3. Heart disease
  1. AIDS
  2. Heart disease
  3. Accidents
  1. Accidents
  2. Cancer
  3. Homicide
45 to 64
  1. Cancer
  2. Heart disease
  3. Accidents
  1. Cancer
  2. Heart disease
  3. Accidents
  1. Cancer
  2. Heart disease
  3. Stroke
  1. Cancer
  2. Heart disease
  3. Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis
65 and older
  1. Heart disease
  2. Cancer
  3. Stroke
  1. Heart disease
  2. Cancer
  3. Stroke
  1. Heart disease
  2. Cancer
  3. Stroke
  1. Heart disease
  2. Cancer
  3. Stroke

Great strides have been make in the past 100 years to allow life expectancy to increase by almost 30 years for Americans. The top three illnesses are amenable, in many cases, to preventive strategies. It is hoped that these preventive strategies will be operating fully in this century, further increasing healthy life expectancy.

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