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Health risk factors that lead to the most deaths

  • Health risk factors that lead to the most deaths

    Life expectancy is increasing around the globe as advances are made in medical care and research; however, the more the medical world investigates, the more we learn new risk factors that can lead to death. Today, the majority of deaths worldwide can be attributed to non-communicable diseases, like cardiovascular diseases and cancer. However, in developing countries, such as Kenya, the leading cause of death is diarrheal disease, which can often be prevented with adequate water filtration and sanitation facilities.

    Our World in Data collected statistics from the Global Burden of Disease, and authored an extensive paper on the world’s leading causes of death, considering behavioral, environmental, occupational, and metabolic risk categories. The risk factors were measured across all ages and genders, and refer to deaths from 2016.

    The contribution of risk factors varies based on country, with high-income countries reporting more deaths related to diet, smoking and alcohol intake, and lower-income countries reporting more deaths related to malnutrition, poor sanitation and pollution-related illness.

    Stacker compiled the 26 top factors that lead to the most deaths, and examined the effects each factor can have on a person’s health. Readers should note that many of these factors can be avoided or remedied through a change in diet, or treatment by a medical professional. However, in developing countries, risk factors are often unavoidable, and medical facilities scarce.

  • #26. Discontinued breastfeeding

    Deaths: 10,038

    Stopping breastfeeding an infant suddenly can lead to a number of health problems, which is why health organizations emphasize the importance of weaning young children slowly and gradually introducing other foods. In 2016, discontinued breastfeeding was the 11th most common risk factor leading to deaths in children under the age of five.

  • #25. Iron deficiency

    Deaths: 20,950

    Left untreated, an iron deficiency—also known as anemia—can result in death. Inherited anemia, like sickle cell anemia, can lead to complications. People with anemia who lose large amounts of blood quickly may experience acute anemia, which can result in death. To avoid an iron deficiency, people should eat a vitamin-rich diet. Those who live in regions where malaria is a problem should take extra precautions, as the disease can sometimes result in anemia as a complication.



  • #24. Zinc deficiency

    Deaths: 25,088

    Zinc is an essential mineral that’s crucial for immune function, healing and growth. Because the body has no specialized zinc storage system, people must ingest the mineral daily, whether through food or supplements. A zinc deficiency is difficult to diagnose, because many of the symptoms, such as weight loss, hair loss, and diarrhea, can also be associated with other illnesses.

  • #23. Vitamin A deficiency

    Deaths: 42,183

    Vitamin A deficiency increases the chance of disease and death from severe infections, and is also the leading cause of preventable blindness in children. The issue is a problem in more than half of the world’s countries, particularly in Africa and southeast Asia. The best way to protect children from vitamin A deficiency is through breastfeeding, since breast milk naturally contains a high amount.

  • #22. Non-exclusive breastfeeding

    Deaths: 144,110

    Non-exclusive breastfeeding is when an infant younger than six months old is given other foods or fluids in addition to breast milk. Across the world, 60 percent of infant deaths are caused by inappropriate infant feeding practices. Non-exclusive breastfeeding can also limit the full absorption of nutrients from breast milk, as well as increase the risk for diarrhea and acute respiratory infections.

  • #21. Child stunting

    Deaths: 162,189

    Stunting is impaired growth and development caused by improper nutrition and infection. Stunting during childhood can cause poor cognition, educational impairments, lost productivity, and an increased risk of nutrition-related chronic illnesses. 

  • #20. Low bone mineral density

    Deaths: 441,226

    Low bone mineral density, also called osteoporosis or osteopenia, creates weak bones and increases the risk for breakage. People with low bone mass can help slow down density loss by eating calcium- and vitamin D-rich foods, as well as doing light to medium weight-bearing exercises. Medical professionals may also be able to prescribe medications, including annual calcium infusions, to prevent low bone mass.

  • #19. Drug use

    Deaths: 451,822

    More than 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017, representing a two-fold increase within the past decade. The largest increase occurred among deaths related to opioids— particularly fentanyl, a potent opioid. From 2002 to 2017, there was more than a sevenfold increase in the total number of heroin-related deaths in the United States. Between 2010 and 2017, there was a more than a threefold increase in cocaine-related deaths.


  • #18. No access to hand-washing facility

    Deaths: 750,336

    People with low access to sanitation facilities—including hand-washing facilities and flushing toilets—experience an increase in diarrheal disease deaths. In 2015, Kenya had the most deaths from diarrheal disease due to lack of sanitation, with only 30 percent of the population having access to facilities.



  • #17. Low birth weight

    Deaths: 778,370

    Low-weight newborns face an increased risk of death until they reach adolescence. Maternal smoking and poor nutrition during pregnancy are two factors known to cause a lower birth weight in babies.

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