Smoking Is Top Cause of Preventable Death

Researchers Say Targeting a Few Key Risk Factors Can Reduce Deaths in U.S.

Medically Reviewed by Elizabeth Klodas, MD, FACC on April 27, 2009
From the WebMD Archives

April 27, 2009 -- Smoking remains the top cause of preventable death in the U.S., followed closely by high blood pressure, according to a new study that shows each accounted for about one in five adult deaths in 2005.

The report also shows being physically inactive, overweight, or obese accounted for nearly one in 10 preventable deaths; high salt intake was responsible for one in 25 deaths.

Researchers say the results show that targeting a handful of risk factors has the potential to substantially reduce preventable deaths.

"In particular, effective interventions are available for tobacco smoking and high blood pressure, the leading two causes of mortality in the U.S.," write researcher Majid Ezzati, of the Harvard School of Public Health, and colleagues in PLoS Medicine. "Despite the availability of interventions, blood pressure and tobacco smoking decline in the U.S. have stagnated or even reversed, and there has been a steady increase in overweight-obesity."

In the study, researchers analyzed the effects of 12 modifiable dietary, lifestyle, and metabolic risk factors on preventable adult deaths in 2005. These risk factors included tobacco smoking, alcohol use, physical inactivity, high LDL "bad" cholesterol, high blood pressure, salt intake, low intake of fruits and vegetables, and being overweight and/or obese.

The results showed:

  • Tobacco smoking accounted for about 467,000 deaths.
  • High blood pressure was responsible for about 395,000 deaths.
  • Overweight-obesity accounted for 216,000 deaths.
  • Physical inactivity was linked to about 191,000 deaths.
  • High salt intake caused about 102,000 deaths (the most of any single dietary factor examined).

In addition, high dietary trans fat intake and low omega-3 fatty acid intake were each responsible for about 80,000 preventable deaths. Researchers say that although about 26,000 deaths from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes were averted by alcohol use, this beneficial effect on preventable deaths was outweighed by about 90,000 alcohol-related deaths from other diseases, traffic accidents, and violence.

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Danaei, G. PLoS Medicine, April 2009; vol 6.

News release, PLoS Medicine.

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