Poor Diet, Physical Inactivity, on Target to Become Leading Causes of Death in U.S.

March 15, 2004
About half of all deaths in the United States can be attributed to largely preventable behaviors and exposures, with tobacco use and poor diet/physical inactivity accounting for the majority of preventable deaths, according to a study in the March 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Ali H. Mokdad, Ph.D., and colleagues from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, conducted a study to identify and quantify the leading causes of death in the United States. The study included a comprehensive MEDLINE search of English-language articles that identified epidemiological, clinical and laboratory studies linking risk behaviors and mortality. Prevalence and relative risk were identified during the literature search. The researchers used 2000 mortality data reported to the CDC to identify the causes and number of deaths. The estimates of actual cause of death were computed by multiplying estimates of the cause-attributable fraction of preventable deaths with the total mortality data.

The researchers found that the leading causes of death in 2000 were tobacco (435,000 deaths; 18.1 percent of total U.S. deaths), poor diet and physical inactivity (400,000 deaths; 16.6 percent) and alcohol consumption (85,000 deaths; 3.5 percent). Other actual causes of death were microbial agents (i.e., influenza and pneumonia, 75,000), toxic agents (exposure to pollutants, asbestos, etc., 55,000), motor vehicle crashes (43,000), incidents involving firearms (29,000), sexual behaviors (20,000) and illicit use of drugs (17,000).

"The rapid increase in the prevalence of overweight means that this proportion is likely to increase substantially in the next few years," wrote the study authors. "The burden of chronic diseases is compounded by the aging effects of the baby boomer generation and the concomitant increased cost of illness at a time when health care spending continues to outstrip growth in the gross domestic product of the United States."

They said their findings indicate "that interventions to prevent and increase cessation of smoking, improve diet, and increase physical activity must become much higher priorities in the public health and health care systems."

In an accompanying editorial, J. Michael McGinnis, M.D., M.P.P., of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, N.J., and William H. Foege, M.D., M.P.H., of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle, write, "Several priorities seem clear at this point. Because a substantial proportion of early deaths among the U.S. population is preventable through lifestyle change, the social commitment to making those changes possible must be enhanced considerably."

They suggest that, "Refining insights into the root causes of illness and injury, presenting those insights in a fashion that can motivate and guide effective action, and marshaling the effort to monitor the results of these actions will require steady improvement in the knowledge base. National leadership and commitment at the policy level, such as suggested by Mokdad and colleagues, is an important ingredient for progress."

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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