What Are The Leading Causes of Death For Older Adults?


Are you curious about the leading causes of death for older adults? Of course you are!

So we went hunting to understand what the leading causes of death are, for seniors, and found a treasure trove of data in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) statistics. Just note that this data is from 2021, so Covid is a bigger factor than usual.

What we learned is really encouraging. First, you can reduce many of your mortality risks through changes entirely in your control. Second, many of the suggested changes help reduce your risk across multiple leading causes of death (like a two for one deal). Lastly, you can lower your risk of dying even if you're making changes later in life.


  1. Heart Disease 22%
  2. Cancerous Tumor 18%
  3. Covid-19 11%
  4. Stroke 6%
  5. Respiratory (emphysema, chronic bronchitis, asthma) 5%
  6. Alzheimer's Disease 5%
  7. Diabetes 3%
  8. Unintentional Injury (falls) 3%
  9. Nephritis 2%
  10. Parkinson's disease 2%

What do we notice about the data above (excluding Covid)? Lots of risk is concentrated in two causes - 2 in 5 older adults, or 40%, will either die from heart disease or cancer.

What are the leading causes of heart disease (heart attack or coronary artery disease)? High blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and smoking are the three key risk factors according to the CDC. Other conditions that increase the risk of heart disease include diabetes, obesity, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, alcoholism.

With respect to cancer, lung cancer is still the leading cause of death among all cancers, accounting for 20% of all cancer deaths.


Given the above, what can we do to help ourselves? It's actually pretty encouraging.

First and foremost, there is one behaviour alone that is a leading cause of heart disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses, and cancer. Can you guess what it is? Smoking.

Unfortunately, while we have cut the number of smokers by more than half in the last 25+ years, 12% of the population still smokes. That needs to stop, and smoking vape or cannabis are not the answers.

We can also dramatically reduce our chances of heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's with simple changes to our lifestyle. The three keys are:

  1. Aerobic Exercise
    - Get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity
    - Moderate exercise might include walking at a brisk pace, dancing, pickle ball, gardening
    - Vigorous aerobic activity includes jogging, swimming laps, singles tennis, biking more than 10 mph

  2. Strength Training
    - Exercises all major muscle groups at least twice per week (legs, chest, shoulders, back and abs / core)
    - Do 1 set, per muscle group, until exhaustion for 12-15 repetitions
    - You can also do exercises like yoga, pilates, or Tai Chi
    - Try the New York Times 10 minute workout (no weights required).

  3. Eating Well
    - Follow the guidelines of the Mediterranean, DASH (blood pressure) or MIND (dementia) diets
    - Eat more fruits, veggies, leafy greens, grains, legumes, nuts, low fat dairy, fish, lean meats and olive oil
    - Avoid or limit packaged / processed foods, deep fried foods, red meats, butter, sweets


So there you have it. Some of the leading causes of death for older adults can be delayed or avoided by altering our lifestyle in some pretty simple and not altogether life altering ways.

The great news? Even if you didn't gain another day of life by adding some physical activity and eating better, you'd very likely dramatically improve the quality of your life by having extra energy, better sleeps, a sharper mind and improved mood, allowing you to spend more quality time with family and friends.

Not to mention, the healthier and more active we are, the longer our health span is, the longer we can live independently and age in place - something we all value.