This year alone, 42 million people (and counting) have died across the world. While the crude death rate (measured as deaths/1000 people) has decreased gradually since 2000 thanks to advances in medicine and access to medical care, more than 100 people still die every minute.

The leading causes of death vary greatly depending on factors such as geographic location, socioeconomic development, and political stability. Globally, ischemic heart disease (also known as coronary artery disease) is the single biggest killer – responsible for 7.4 million deaths in 2012 – but is most prevalent in higher-income countries. In lower-income countries, including many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, lower respiratory infections (flu, bronchitis, pneumonia), HIV/AIDS, and diarrheal diseases are responsible for a higher proportion of deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

Just as population growth rate statistics can say a lot about a country’s development, so too do death rate statistics. Looking at the prevailing death rate statistics in various countries gives us insight into economic development, provision of health services by political institutions, and even cultural norms.

We examined the number one killers in the world’s ten largest countries (by population).

1. China – Cerebrovascular Disease

Cerebrovascular disease, which causes stroke, is now the number one killer across the country. In tandem with its rapid economic growth, China as a whole has seen a drastic increase of life expectancy at birth since 1990, from 69.5 years to more than 75. Lower respiratory infections and maternal complications – more common in lower-income countries – have in most provinces been replaced by cerebrovascular and ischaemic heart disease as the leading causes of death, indicating a shift for many to the global economy’s middle class.

Image: Flickr, V.T. Polywoda

2. India – Ischemic Heart Disease

While ischemic heart disease is the biggest killer in India, according to the CDC, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) causes almost as many deaths per year. COPD, a lung disease often caused by smoking and air pollution, remains a major health concern in countries (like India and parts of China) that have experienced rapid industrialization in the past half century.

3. United States – Heart Disease and Cancer

In the US, heart disease (in decline since the 1950s) and cancer (in decline since the 1990s) are both responsible for approximately 600,000 deaths per year. Other major killers include accidents (e.g., motor vehicle collisions, drug overdose) at number four, Alzheimer’s rising to number six, and suicide rounding out the top ten.

4. Indonesia – Stroke

Stroke, which in most cases is caused by blood clots in the brain, is responsible for more than 20 percent of deaths in Indonesia. According to the World Heart Foundation, the incidence of stroke has decreased in higher-income countries, but could as much as triple in lower-income countries in Latin America, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa over the course of the next two decades.

5. Brazil – Low Back and Neck Pain

This one was unexpected. According to GBD Compare (from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation) low back and neck pain, which can cause musculoskeletal disorders, was responsible for the same amount of deaths in Brazil as ischemic heart disease. In developing countries like Brazil, low back pain is one of the leading sources of disability, often associated with years of physical labor and farming. Also notable is that three percent of deaths in Brazil were caused by interpersonal violence, while two percent were caused by HIV/AIDS.

Image: Flickr, Julia Pantoja / World Bank

6. Pakistan – Ischemic heart disease, Cancer, Lower Respiratory Infections

Pakistan, which spends less money per capita on healthcare than its neighbor, India, nonetheless suffers from a similar top killer in ischemic heart disease. A roughly equal amount of deaths are caused by cancer and lower respiratory infections, indicating a country that suffers equally from illnesses common to both lower- and higher-income countries.

7. Bangladesh – Cancer

Though Bangladesh’s high incidence of cancer can not fully be attributed to tobacco, Bangladesh is home to 20 million smokers, and more than 40 percent of men over 15 smoke. Globally, the WHO estimates that tobacco is responsible for 6 million deaths per year.

8. Nigeria – Malaria

A whopping 20 percent of deaths in Nigeria come by way of malaria. Nigeria serves as a microcosm for diseases in Africa on the whole, with lower respiratory infections, HIV, and diarrheal diseases making up the second through fourth most common illnesses in the country.

Image: CDC/ Prof. Frank Hadley Collins

9. Russia – Ischemic heart disease

Roughly one in three deaths in Russia can be attributed to heart disease. Interestingly, a 2014 study by Lancet showed that one in four Russian men who die before the age of 55 die from alcohol, including liver disease, alcohol poisoning and other alcohol-induced activities.

10. Japan – Cerebrovascular Disease

Japan, like China, has seen a drastic decrease in its mortality rate in the past half century. Japan’s advanced level of socioeconomic development, which is near to that of the United States, means that the country suffers from a similar set of afflictions such as diabetes and high blood sugar, and has a lower proportion of non-communicable diseases.

Experts predict that by 2020 non-communicable (or chronic) diseases, such as cancer and COPD, will account for 73 percent of global deaths. The overwhelming majority of these diseases afflict people living in lower-income countries, largely in the global South.

As high-income countries find ways to curb their death rates, they must also find ways to export solutions to lower-income ones. Furthermore, communicable diseases such as malaria and HIV continue to place a strain on developing countries. The continued prevalence of these diseases shows how much global health systems can and must improve.  

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Defeat Poverty

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