Avoidable Mortality

V. Key Health Policy Issues >> A. Burden of Illness >> Avoidable Mortality (last update 9.24.16)

Total Deaths, by Cause

Major Causes of Death

Methods of Recording and Classifying Deaths

Avoidable Causes of Death


  • J. Michael McGinnis and William H. Foege. Actual Causes of Death in the United States. Journal of the American Medical Association November 10, 1993; 270 (18): 2207-2212. Provides 1990 estimates of leading causes of death based on underlying determinants (e.g., tobacco, diet/inactivity) rather than disease classification.
  • C. Conover. Leading Cause of Preventable Deaths, 1993. Duke University, Center for Health Policy. Adds additional causes of preventable death such as hospital deaths due to negligence and updates figures to 1993.
  • Ali H. Mokdad; James S. Marks; Donna F. Stroup; Julie L. Gerberding. Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000 JAMA. 2004;291(10):1238-1245. This updates to McGinnis/Foege estimates to 2000. The leading causes of death in 2000 were tobacco (435 000 deaths; 18.1% of total US deaths), poor diet andphysical inactivity (400 000 deaths; 16.6%), and alcoholconsumption (85 000 deaths; 3.5%). Other actual causesof death were microbial agents (75 000), toxic agents (55 000),motor vehicle crashes (43 000), incidents involving firearms(29 000), sexual behaviors (20 000), and illicit use of drugs (17 000).

Major Causes of Avoidable Deaths

  • Obesity. Richard Peto estimates (7.13.16) that 1 in 5 premature deaths in the U.S. is attributable to obesity.
  • Medical Errors. See here for various estimates of deaths due to medical errors.
  • Drug Poisoning. Drug poisoning (overdose) is the number one cause of injury-related death in the United States, with 43,982 deaths occurring in 2013.
    • Prescription Drug Overdose. Every day, 44 people (16,000 deaths a year) in the U.S. die from overdose of prescription painkillers, and many more become addicted.
    • Heroin Deaths. There were 8,257 drug poisoning deaths related to heroin in 2013.

Interventions that Significantly Reduce Death Risk

Listed in order of percent reduction in lifetime risk of death.

Running. A 2017 study shows running adds 7 hours of life expectancy for each hour spent running. This may or may not be a sensible investment depending on how much an individual discounts future gains in life expectancy.

Avoiding Obesity. A 2016 meta-analysis of 239 worldwide studies on obesity concluded that relative to those with BMI of 22.5-25.0 (normal weight) the increase in death risk for those who are slightly overweight (25.0-27.5) is 7%; for those who are more overweight (27.5-<30.0) is 20.0%; for those who are moderately obese (30-<35.0) is 45%, those who are very obese (35.0-<40.0) is 94% and those who are morbidly obese (40.0+) is 176% (Table 2).

Church-Going. Researchers used data from a long-term study of 75,534 women that tracked their health and lifestyle, including their attendance at religious services, over 16 years through 2012. After controlling for more than two dozen factors, they found that compared with those who never went to church, going more than once a week was associated with a 33% lower risk for death from any cause, attending once a week with a 26% lower risk, and going less than once a week a 13% lowered risk (JAMA Internal Medicine, June 2016).

Eating Whole Grains. Using data from 45 studies, researchers calculated that compared with eating none, 90 grams of whole grains a day reduced the risk for all-cause mortality by 17% (BMJ, 6.14.16). A different analysis of 14 prospective studies found that compared to those who at the least whole grain foods, those who ate the most had a 16% reduction in all-cause mortality (Circulation, 6.14.16).

Annual and Lifetime Risk of Death

  • Political CalculationsThe Odds of Dying in the U.S. Annual and lifetime risk of death in U.S. for 2 dozen different types of accident or injury.
  • Political CalculationsThe Odds of Dying, Again!  Lifetime risk of death in U.S. for 3 dozen different causes.
  • Political Calculations. Probability of living to 100 calculator.
  • Cohen, Bernard. Chapter 8: Understanding Risk, in The Nuclear Energy Option. Extensive listing of expected loss of life expectancy for nearly 50 everyday risks, including explanation of how calculations derived and extensive list of sources. Fig. 1 lists the risks and their associated LLE in rank order.
  • Cohen, Bernard. Catalog of Risks Extended and Updated. Health Physics, September 1991. Extensive listing of expected loss of life expectancy for a variety of everyday risks, including explanation of how calculations derived and extensive list of sources.
  • Cohen, Bernard. Risks in PerspectiveJournal of American Physicians and Surgeons Volume 8 Number 2 Summer 2003. Updated listing of loss of life expectancy for nearly 50 everyday risks; sources listed are prior Cohen compilations. Fig. 1 shows the list in rank order. He includes:
    • Disease-Caused Mortality
    • Accident-Caused Mortality
    • Occupation-Related Mortality
    • Lifestyle-Related Mortality
    • Economic Status
    • Environmental Risk Factors
    • Natural Hazards
  • DeathRiskRankings.org (Carnegie Mellon University) calculated your risk of dying in the next year and allows you to compare that risk to others in the world. Not available since 2011. Wayback Machine archived version.
  • Understanding Uncertainty. Micromorts. Calculator contains a number of mortality risks, expressed in micromorts (chance of death per million), including various types of transportation (miles traveled per micromort; micromorts per 100 miles); selected activities (e.g., skiing); risk of getting out of bed at various ages; and various health activities (e.g., giving birth, having anesthesia).
  • American College of SurgeonsACS Surgical Risk Calculator. The calculator estimates the chance of an unfavorable outcome (such as a complication or death) after surgery. The risk is estimated based upon information the patient gives to the healthcare provider about prior health history. The estimates are calculated using data from a large number of patients who had a surgical procedure similar to the one the patient may have.

Life Expectancy

Life Expectancy and Economic Development

  • Haacker, Markus.  Contribution of Increased Life Expectancy to Living StandardsThe paper provides an analysis of the contribution of increasing life expectancy to living standards across countries. Building on an intertemporal utility framework and the literature on the value of statistical life, it analyzes contributions of economic growth and increasing life expectancy to welfare for 20 countries from 1870, offers an analysis with a near-global scope from 1950, and covers the adverse implications of a negative health shock (HIV/AIDS). Various measures of life expectancy are explored, and the implications of different methods of discounting are discussed.

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