What has been the leading cause of death for humans?

Anatomically modern humans, I should say, since we first appeared circa 200,000 years ago.

Imagine a chart of all the causes of death from for every human who has died, from ski-jumping Niagara Falls to myocardial infarction. Which causes of death are likely to have the most notches next to them? Will it be prehistoric causes of death due to the tens of thousands of years they had to accumulate or will more modern causes of death due to the human population explosion that came with civilisation?

I’ve tried JFGI but all I can find is likely causes of death for humans around today.

Lack of usable oxygen to the brain.

People are living longer these days and cancer is probably in the lead, but obviously it wasn’t always this way.

If I had to guess, I’d say Influenza. People, especially very old and very young, still die from it today. It must have been a bitch to deal with before modern medicine and especially if you had to engage in physical labour with a high fever.

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I seem to remember a TV show that claimed that half of all people who ever lived and died died of malaria, but I have never found any source to back this up.

Malnutrition must be up there, too. And violence.

Good question. If you atomise the selection too much then its going to get down to low numbers very quickly, eg ‘killed by tortoise dropped from eagle - 1’ [extra points if you give us the victim’s name], ‘killed by turtle dropped by eagle - 0’. Therefore tortoises are far deadlier.

In broad categories - say death by:

Infectious disease
Misadventure / accident
Fatalities in war [inc non-combatants]
Chronic diseases and lifestyles
Diseases of old age

or some other taxonomy, I’d probably give it to infectious diseases, but it would be a complete guess.

I found this…

What’s a tortoise?

These questions always depend on how thin you slice your categories. At the broadest level, we could divide deaths up into accidents, misadventure, and natural causes. But we could divide up “misadventure” into suicides, murders, judicial killings, and war. Alternately, we could divide it up by the cause of death: Gun, sword, poison, etc. Or both. And we could still divide it up further than that: For instance, we could count the number of people killed in warfare from machine gun fire. Similarly, “natural causes” could include cancer, heart disease, stroke, and infectious diseases. Or maybe we divide up “infectious diseases” into bacterial diseases, protistic diseases, fungal diseases, viral diseases, and prions. Or divide up each of those.

In the end, which one is biggest will depend on how we’re slicing those. For instance, we could say that cancer kills more people than H1N1 influenza. Or we could say that viral diseases kill more people than squamous cell carcinoma.

Was that Archdeacon Vorbis?

I think you are technically correct, the best kind of correct.

Fair points about how you slice up exactly how specific the cause has to be, I was thinking in terms of what a coroner would list as the cause of death on a death certificate, which the CDC says should include;

If you google “Bills Of Mortality” you can find a lot of data on causes of death in the U.K. in the years before modern medicine. Tuberculosis (consumption) seems to be consistently high on the list.

But I wonder if infectious diseases caused such a large proportion of deaths when population density was lower?

Childbirth has killed a lot of mothers and babies throughout our history.

Dental problems as a direct of indirect cause of death were probably also high on the list:


Before antibiotics, a tooth infection could easily lead to septicemia and death.

As I understand it, a “train of morbid events” would be something like “lacerations to leg became infected with staph bacteria, leading to gangrene of the leg, leading to sepsis, leading to poisoning of the heart, subsequent heart failure, and resultant loss of blood flow to the brain”. Which is a different train than “lacerations to leg resulting in excessive loss of blood, resulting in insufficient blood flow to brain”, even though both start from the same basic cause. On the other hand, the train of morbid events would be mostly the same if those lacerations came from an enemy soldier with a bayonet, a hunting lion’s claws, or a car that slipped off of its jack while the victim was working on it.

Leading cause of death for modern humans

Death by human.

You know what a turtle is, Leon? Same thing.

Leading causes of death today:

• Heart disease: 614,348
• Cancer: 591,699
• Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 147,101
• Accidents (unintentional injuries): 136,053
• Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 133,103
• Alzheimer’s disease: 93,541
• Diabetes: 76,488
• Influenza and pneumonia: 55,227
• Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 48,146
• Intentional self-harm (suicide): 42,773

Leading causes of death in 1950:
heart disease, cancer, stroke, accidents, infant death, influenza/pneumonia, tuberculosis, arteriosclerosis, kidney disease, and diabetes.

Leading causes of death in 1920:
influenza/pneumonia, heart disease, tuberculosis, stroke, kidney disease, cancer, accidents, diarrhea/enteritis, premature birth, and childbirth related conditions.

Leading causes of death in 1900:
influenza/pneumonia, tuberculosis, diarrhea/enteritis, heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, accidents, cancer, senility, and diphtheria as the leading causes of death.

From here: Historical Leading Causes of Death | NCHStats

… wolves …

It all comes down to cardiac arrest in the end…

If we lump together by symptoms, I’d say gastro-intestinal disease followed by starvation. Keep in mind that up until quite recently, most humans died in infancy.

Honorable mention goes to drowning. While probably not up there in total numbers, tropical rain has swept away quite a lot of babies over the millennia.

If you atomise the selection too much then its going to get down to low numbers very quickly, eg ‘killed by tortoise dropped from eagle - 1’ [extra points if you give us the victim’s name

I think it was Aeschylus who started this trend;
Aeschylus - Wikipedia