The top 5 causes of premature death

Thousands of people in England could avoid an early death from one of the five most common killers.

Early diagnosis and better treatment could help tackle these potentially avoidable illnesses, but a few key lifestyle changes could also help you reduce your risk of getting them in the first place.

A child born today should expect to live a longer, healthier life than ever before. Yet, one in three deaths in England are before the age of 75 and more than three quarters of these premature deaths are as a result of the five big killers:

  • cancer
  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • respiratory disease
  • liver disease

A Government report, Living Well for Longer (PDF, 1.6Mb), blames the top five killers for more than 150,000 deaths a year among under-75s in England alone and the Department of Health estimates two-thirds of them are entirely avoidable.

This chart shows the premature death toll by condition. Heart disease and stroke are together referred to as cardiovascular disease.


Unsurprisingly, leading an unhealthy lifestyle greatly increases your chances of premature death, with smoking, drinking too much alcohol, poor diet, lack of physical activity and being overweight all key contributors to early death.

But gender, social class and geography have an influence too. Your chance of premature death is higher if you’re male, working class, have a mental illness, live in the North, are disabled, have a learning disability, or if you are from an ethnic minority group.

There’s also a huge gap in life expectancy between the rich and poor. In England, people from poor areas die on average seven years earlier than people in the most affluent neighbourhoods, and also spend many more years of their shorter lives with a disability.

Check your local area's early death rate

The Longer Lives website, launched by Public Health England, shows premature mortality rates for each local authority in England. Use it to see how your area ranks nationally and how it compares to those with similar populations, incomes and levels of health.

Reduce your risk of cancer

Are you at risk of early death?

The 10 main risk factors that make you more likely to die prematurely are:

  • Smoking
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Being overweight
  • Not doing enough exercise
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Eating too little fruit
  • Having high cholesterol
  • Not eating enough nuts and seeds
  • Having high blood sugar levels
  • Consuming too much salt

More than one in three people will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime. Although there are more than 200 different types of cancer, lung, breast, prostate and bowel cancer account for more than half of cases.

According to Cancer Research UK, an unhealthy lifestyle is the root cause of about a third of all cancers.

Smoking causes almost all lung cancer. Poor diet has been linked to bowel cancer, pancreatic cancer and oesophageal cancer. And heavy drinking has been implicated in the development of breast cancer.

While healthy lifestyle changes can prevent many cases of cancer, public health initiatives such as vaccination and screening aim to drive down cancer cases even further.

As part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme, all girls aged 12 to 13 are offered HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccination to protect them against cervical cancer. It's estimated that about 400 lives are saved every year as a result of vaccinating girls before they are infected with HPV.

National screening programmes for breast, cervical and bowel cancer help identify cancer at an early stage when it’s more treatable.

Breast cancer screening and cervical cancer screening are believed to save 1,300 and 4,500 lives a year respectively. While bowel cancer screening has been shown to reduce the risk of dying from bowel cancer by 16%.

It's believed that newly introduced abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) screening will reduce the death rate from ruptured AAAs among men aged 65 and over by up to 50% and prevent around 2,000 premature deaths a year.

Reduce your risk of heart disease

Experts say most cases of premature death from heart disease are completely preventable. Smoking, being overweight, having high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol, heavy drinking and physical inactivity are all key risk factors.

Reduce your risk of stroke

Stroke is the third leading cause of death in England each year and the leading cause of disability. More than 150,000 people have a stroke every year in the UK but, according to The Stroke Association, up to 10,000 of these could be prevented if more people were aware of the symptoms and sought out emergency treatment.

High blood pressure is a key cause of stroke. Almost one in three people in England have high blood pressure and nearly half of them aren’t receiving any treatment for the condition, says the British Heart Foundation.

Reduce your risk of respiratory disease

Respiratory disease covers a variety of conditions ranging from asthma to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) one of the commonest causes of death.

COPD is almost completely avoidable. Most cases (around 85%) are caused by smoking. The other 15% of cases are triggered by exposure to fumes, chemicals and dusts at work or, very occasionally, because of a rare genetic tendency to develop COPD called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency.

Reduce your risk of liver disease

Liver disease is on the increase in England with a 20% increase in cases over the last decade. The disease develops silently and many people have no idea there’s anything wrong until they develop liver failure and it’s too late.

The three main causes of liver disease are heavy drinking, obesity and viral hepatitis (inflammation of the liver).

Read this advice from the British Liver Trust on how to look after your liver.

Page last reviewed: 16/06/2014

Next review due: 16/06/2016


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