Up to 40% of Deaths from Leading Causes Are Preventable

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Each year, nearly 900,000 Americans die early from the five leading causes of deaths, but between 20 and 40 percent of the deaths from each of these causes could be prevented, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The five leading causes of death are heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke and unintentional injuries, and they accounted for 63 percent of all deaths in the United States in 2010, according to the report. Many of these deaths could be avoided by people changing their behaviors, the researchers said.  

The report looked at deaths before age 80 from each cause, for each state, from 2008 to 2010. The researchersfound large differences among states -- Southeastern states had the highest number of preventable deaths for each of the five causes.

The analysis showed that if the death rates in every state moved closer to those of the states with the lowest rates of death from these causes, the country would prevent more than 30 percent of deaths from heart disease, about 20 percent of premature cancer deaths, 40 percent of deaths from lower respiratory disease, 30 percent of stroke deaths, and 40 percent of deaths from injuries, according to the report published today (May 1). [7 Ways to Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease]

"We have the biggest impact when we make the default choice the healthy choice, and that's what [the healthiest] states have done," Dr. Tom Frieden, director of CDC said.

"Your longevity and health are more determined by your ZIP code than they are by your genetic code," Frieden said. "We can make it easier for people to be physically active, to avoid tobacco and have access to healthy food, to get recommended clinical services such as blood pressure treatment and cancer checks."

The researchers noted that the numbers of preventable deaths from each cause cannot be added together to get an overall total. That’s because some people who avoid dying early from one cause, such as heart disease, may still die from another cause, for example, a traffic accident.

Still, more than yearly 100,000 deaths could be avoided, Frieden said.

"[This report] should make the reality of health and avoidable deaths much more apparent to all of us," Frieden said.

For example, people can avoid premature heart disease by quitting tobacco, and controlling their blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as maintaining a healthy diet and doing adequate physical activity.

People can also wear seatbelts, use motorcycle helmets, curb alcohol and avoid drug use (including prescription opioid drugs), and avoid too much sun exposure, to reduce their risk of dying from preventable diseases and accident, according to the report.

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Bahar Gholipour
Staff Writer
Bahar Gholipour is a staff reporter for Live Science covering neuroscience, odd medical cases and all things health. She holds a Master of Science degree in neuroscience from the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris, and has done graduate-level work in science journalism at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She has worked as a research assistant at the Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives at ENS.