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Most Women Die From These 10 Health Issues

Here's how to avoid the top 10 deadliest conditions for U.S. women.

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Healthy living can help prevent many fatal conditions. In fact, a significant portion of the top five causes of death are preventable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Regardless of when your time’s up, or how you go, healthy living can help you stay active and energetic in the years you’ve got.

Here are the top 10 causes of death for American women, counting up to number one—plus key tips on how to stay well.

Please note: This list does not include deaths resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Medically reviewed in December 2020.

#10 Septicemia

2 / 11 #10 Septicemia

Septicemia is a serious infection complication that can quickly turn deadly. It happens when an infection travels from a contained area, like a wound or your lungs, to your bloodstream. Once there, it can easily reach other organs and progress to sepsis. Sepsis involves multiple organ failure due to widespread inflammation.

The number one way to prevent septicemia is to see a healthcare provider (HCP) right away if you suspect you have a serious infection like pneumonia, or if you develop a wound that could become infected.

#9 Kidney disease

3 / 11 #9 Kidney disease

Your kidneys filter blood, collecting waste and toxins, which are then removed via your urine.

With chronic kidney disease (CKD), the kidneys gradually lose their ability to filter blood and form urine. That can lead to blood pressure spikes, potentially deadly abnormal heart rhythms and fluid build-up in the lungs, among other complications. Some people eventually develop irreversible kidney damage. In that case, a dialysis machine is used to filter their blood since their kidneys no longer do the work.

Obesity, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and a family history of CKD all raise your risk of developing the condition.

#8 Flu and pneumonia

4 / 11 #8 Flu and pneumonia

The flu is a virus that’s associated with serious complications like:

  • Asthma attacks
  • Dehydration
  • Pneumonia

Having the flu can put chronic illnesses like heart disease into crisis mode. Those with chronic illnesses, the elderly, pregnant people and kids are at especially high risk for hospitalization and death.

Both the flu and pneumonia can be prevented with vaccines. Even if you’re young and healthy, the CDC recommends getting an annual flu shot. It can help you avoid unpleasant symptoms and keep the virus from spreading to others, particularly vulnerable people who are unable to be vaccinated themselves. During the COVID-19 pandemic, getting the flu shot will also ease the burden on healthcare workers.

Children younger than age 2 and adults aged 65 and older should receive a pneumococcal vaccine to protect against pneumonia, as should smokers and people with certain medical conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.

#7 Diabetes

5 / 11 #7 Diabetes

Diabetes is the number seven killer of U.S. women, but the actual death toll may be higher, according to the American Diabetes Association. The condition can cause deadly complications like kidney damage, and people with diabetes often have other illnesses like heart disease, as well. This means that diabetes may not always be recorded as the cause of a patient's death.

Women are at increased risk of diabetes when experiencing hormone changes related to pregnancy and menopause. Keep your scheduled OBGYN appointments if you fall into either of these categories. Your HCP may recommend routine blood tests to monitor your blood sugar levels.

#6 Unintentional injuries

6 / 11 #6 Unintentional injuries

Unintentional injuries include falls, car crashes, poisoning and burns. Since these are considered “accidents,” they might seem unavoidable. But even unintentional injuries can be prevented with safety precautions.

For example, around half of the motor vehicle deaths in 2017 involved passengers not wearing seatbelts. Buckle up even if you’re just going around the corner—47 percent of accidents happen within 5 miles of home, according to a 2007 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report.

It’s important to note that drug overdoses are included under “poisonings.” America is currently facing a national opioid epidemic, which claimed more than 50,000 lives in 2019 alone. Opioids are a category of drug that includes the painkillers oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and fentanyl, as well as heroin.

Women may be at higher risk of overdoses because they’re more likely to:

  • Suffer from long-term pain
  • Be prescribed pain meds
  • Use opioids for long periods

If you need pain relief, ask your HCP about non-opioid options. If you receive opioids, make a plan with your HCP for tapering off from the beginning. Never drink alcohol or use drugs that aren’t approved by your doctor while on painkillers.

#5 Alzheimer’s disease

7 / 11 #5 Alzheimer’s disease

Women are more likely to have Alzheimer’s disease (AD). There’s no way to prevent the condition, but you may be able to lower your risk by:

  • Keeping your mind active in retirement: Consider joining a book club or taking language classes.
  • Adding more fruits and veggies to your diet: You may want to try a plant-based or Mediterranean-style diet that’s especially rich in colorful produce.
  • Going for daily walks with your pet: The exercise and affection may add years to your life.

Women are also likelier to provide unpaid, around-the-clock care for someone living with AD. Caregiving can be lonely, interfere with your job and take a serious toll on your health. If you’re a caregiver, know the signs of burnout and get help when you need it.

#4 Stroke

8 / 11 #4 Stroke

It’s crucial to get immediate help for any symptoms that may indicate a stroke.

Many women have a bad habit of disregarding their own physical needs in order to care for others. Drop what you’re doing and call 911 if you experience any of the following:

  • Numbness or weakness in your arms, legs or face
  • Difficulty speaking or understanding speech
  • Sudden confusion or dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • A spontaneous, severe headache

These symptoms might affect one or both sides of your body. If you feel any of them—even just one—call for help within five minutes. Note the time of your first symptom if possible, so emergency personnel can know which life-saving treatments to give you.

#3 Chronic lower respiratory diseases

9 / 11 #3 Chronic lower respiratory diseases

Chronic lower respiratory diseases include asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which involves both emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

While air pollution can contribute to lung issues, tobacco is the number one risk factor for these conditions. If someone in your house smokes, ask them to take it outside. Secondhand smoke contains at least 7,000 deadly chemicals and limiting smoking to one room won’t keep them contained.

If you're a smoker yourself and are looking to quit, tracking your daily tobacco use can help. Try an app, like Sharecare, available for iOS and Android, to track your progress and take control of your health.

#2 Cancer

10 / 11 #2 Cancer

Cancer was the cause of 20.7 percent of all female deaths in 2017 alone. Here are some cancers that commonly affect women, plus information on screening and prevention:

Lower your cancer risk in general by quitting tobacco, which is a major factor in 40 percent of all U.S. cancer diagnoses. Practicing sun safety, limiting red meat and alcohol, and eating more fruits and veggies are also key prevention strategies.

#1 Heart disease

11 / 11 #1 Heart disease

Heart disease is the number one killer of women, claiming a life almost every minute. You may think, I’m too young for heart disease, or Only the men in my family get heart attacks. These are common, dangerous myths.

You’re never too young or too fit; heart disease affects women of all ages and fitness levels. You may be at especially high risk if you smoke and take birth control pills. The combination increases your odds of heart disease by 20 percent. To lower your chances of problems, nix the cigarettes and practice heart-healthy habits at every age.

Women are also less likely to survive heart attacks than men, partly because they tend to experience them later in life. To improve your likelihood of survival, learn to recognize the symptoms.

Sources:

National Kidney Foundation. “Prevention.” 2020. Accessed November 23, 2020.
Mayo Clinic. “Chronic Kidney Disease.” August 15, 2019. Accessed November 23, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Key Facts About Influenza (Flu).” September 13, 2019. Accessed November 23, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Disease Burden of Influenza.” October 5, 2020. Accessed November 23, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Diabetes Press Kit.” 2020. Accessed November 23, 2020.
American Diabetes Association. “How Gestational Diabetes Can Impact Your Baby.” 2020. Accessed November 23, 2020.
American Diabetes Association. “Get empowered by staying informed.” 2020. Accessed November 23, 2020.
Mayo Clinic. “Diabetes.” October 30, 2020. Accessed November 23, 2020.
American Diabetes Association. “Statistics About Diabetes.” 2020. Accessed November 23, 2020.
Megan Brooks. “Drug Overdose Now Leading Cause of Injury-Related Deaths.” MedScape.com. June 17, 2015.
American Society of Addiction Medicine. “Opioid Addiction 2016 Facts & Figures.” 2016. Accessed November 23, 2020.
WomensHealth.gov. “White Paper: Opioid Use, Misuse, and Overdose in Women.” December 2016. Accessed November 23, 2020.
National Center for Health Statistics. “Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts.” 2020. Accessed November 24, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Seat Belts: Get the Facts.” October 7, 2020. Accessed November 23, 2020.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Seat Belts.” January 2020. Accessed November 24, 2020.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “2007 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey.” 2007. Accessed November 24, 2020.
Go Red for Women. “Symptoms of a Stroke in Women vs Men.” September 15, 2020. Accessed November 23, 2020.
World Health Organization. “Risk Factors for Chronic Respiratory Diseases.” 2020. Accessed November 23, 2020.
Washington State Department of Health. “Wildfire Smoke and Face Masks.” July 2019. Accessed November 23, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Cancers linked to tobacco use make up 40% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States.” November 10, 2016. Accessed November 23, 2020.
American Cancer Society. “Cancer Facts for Women.” July 30, 2020. Accessed November 23, 2020.
American Heart Association. “Women & Cardiovascular Diseases.” 2013. Accessed November 23, 2020.
Go Red for Women. “Facts About Heart Disease in Women.” 2020. Accessed November 23, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Up to 40 percent of annual deaths from each of five leading US causes are preventable.” May 1, 2014. Accessed November 23, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Leading Causes of Death - Females - All races and origins - United States, 2017.” November 20, 2019. Accessed December 9, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Chronic Kidney Disease Basics.” February 7, 2020. Accessed December 10, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Protect Your Health This Season.” November 6, 2020. Accessed December 10, 2020.
T Muka, E Asllanaj, et al. “Age at natural menopause and risk of type 2 diabetes: a prospective cohort study.” Diabetologia. July 18, 2017. 60, pages1951–1960.
American Hospital Association. “CDC: Drug overdose deaths up 4.6% in 2019.” July 16, 2020. Accessed December 10, 2020.
Laura Kiesel. “Women and pain: Disparities in experience and treatment.” Harvard Health Publishing. October 9, 2017.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. “Women and Pain Medicines.” June 18, 2019. Accessed December 10, 2020.
S Rajaram, J Jones, & GJ Lee. “Plant-Based Dietary Patterns, Plant Foods, and Age-Related Cognitive Decline.” Advances in Nutrition. November 2019, Volume 10, Issue Supplement_4, Pages S422–S436.
KR Gildawie, RL Galli, et al. “Protective Effects of Foods Containing Flavonoids on Age-Related Cognitive Decline.” Nutrition and Aging. May 4, 2018. 7, pages39–48(2018).
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress.” 2014. Accessed December 10, 2020.
American Heart Association. “Birth Control and Heart Disease in Women.” 2020. Accessed December 10, 2020.

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