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Most Women Die From These 10 Health Issues

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

Updated on July 17, 2023

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Did you know that a significant portion of the top five causes of death are preventable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)? Healthy living can help prevent many fatal conditions, and active and energetic over the years.

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

woman with pneumonia at risk for sepsis
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#10 Septicemia

Septicemia—also known as blood poisoning— is a serious complication from an infection that can quickly turn deadly. It happens when an infection travels from a contained area, like a wound or your lungs, into your bloodstream. Once there, the infection can easily reach other organs and progress to sepsis, which causes inflammation and blood clots throughout the body, potentially leading to multiple organ failure.

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. And always wash hands thoroughly before touching a wound.

woman with kidney pain
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#9 Kidney disease

The kidneys may not be as high-profile as, say, your heart, lungs, and brain, but those bean-shaped organs do the critical job of filtering blood, as well as collecting waste and toxins, which are then removed via your urine.

With chronic kidney disease (CKD), the kidneys gradually lose their ability to do their job. 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 becomes necessary to take over the work of filtering toxins from the blood.

senior woman coughing
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#8 Flu and pneumonia

Flu and pneumonia are two common illnesses that can become deadly, especially for people at high risk, such as children, the elderly, pregnant people, and those with chronic illnesses. Fortunately, both can be prevented—or at least you can reduce your risk of serious complications—by getting vaccinated. 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.

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.

woman using glucose meter
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#7 Diabetes

Offically, diabetes is listed as the number seven killer of U.S. women, but the actual number may be even higher, according to the American Diabetes Association. That’s because diabetes—a chronic condition in which the body can’t produce or use enough insulin to control blood sugar— can cause deadly complications such as kidney damage. People with diabetes often have other illnesses such as heart disease, and  some of those higher-ranked causes of death may also be connected to diabetes.

Women are at increased risk of diabetes when experiencing hormone changes related to pregnancy and menopause. Make sure to check in with your HCP regularly if you fall into either of those categories— they may recommend routine blood tests to monitor your blood sugar levels. Lifestyle changes such as adding more physical activity to your routine and eating a healthy, plant-forward diet can also reduce your risk of developing diabetes.

woman putting her seatbelt
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#6 Unintentional injuries

The sixth most common cause of death for women is a catchall category that includes falls, car crashes, poisoning, and burns. Though these are called “accidents,” many can be prevented with safety precautions.

For example, around half of the motor vehicle deaths in 2020 involved passengers not wearing seatbelts. Buckle up even if you’re just going for a drive around the neighborhood—most deadly car crashes happen within 25 miles from home, and at speeds less than 40 mph, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Accidental deaths include drug overdoses. In 2021 alone, the national opioid epidemic claimed more than 71,000 lives—a number that has been continually increasing over the past two decades . Opioids are a category of drug that includes the painkillers oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and fentanyl, as well as heroin. Though the majority of opioid deaths are among men, the rate of women dying from these overdoses has increased at a faster pace than the increase in male overdoses.

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.

senior woman looking out the window
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#5 Alzheimer’s disease

More than 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), and around two-thirds of them are women. As the population ages, those numbers will continue to increase. While scientists are looking for ways to both prevent and treat the degenerative and ultimately deadly brain disease, right now, there is no cure. But research suggests that certain lifestyle changes might help lower your risk, or at least may push the onset of symptoms several years down the road. These include:

  • Going for daily walks: Exercise keeps the blood flowing through your body, providing oxygen to your brain. Bring a friend or your dog along for the stroll—social interaction and affection can also help keep your brain sharp.
  • 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.

Alzheimer’s also affects other members of the family—women are more likely 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 look into getting help when you need it.

rear view woman clutching her chest
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#4 Stroke

Stroke kills more women than men, and if you’re pregnant, in menopause, and/or a woman of color, your risk is even higher. The good news is that up to 80 percent of strokes may be preventable by taking steps such as eating a heart-healthy diet, getting regular exercise, practicing stress-management strategies, and keeping on top of risk factors such as high blood pressure and sleep apnea.

Since it’s crucial to get medical help at the first sign of a stroke, pay attention to these symptoms and call 911 right away if you experience any of these symptoms on one or both sides of your body:

  • Numbness or weakness in your arms, legs or face
  • Difficulty speaking or understanding speech
  • Sudden confusion or dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • A spontaneous, severe headache
closeup of hand smoking cigarette
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#3 Chronic lower respiratory diseases

The third most common cause of death for women is also one of the most preventable. Smoking is the number one risk factor for chronic lower respiratory diseases including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Air pollution also plays a role, but you can vastly decrease your risk of dying from these respiratory diseases by quitting smoking and asking those you live with to quit or smoke outside.

Ask your HCP about options that can help you quit. Your HCP can refer you to smoking cessation programs that can increase your chances of success; you can also try an app, like Sharecare, available for iOS and Android, to track your progress and take control of your health.

nurse talking with breast cancer patient
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#2 Cancer

Though cancer deaths have been steadily decreasing over the last 20 years, thanks to breakthroughs in both early screenings and treatments, as well as a drop in the number of Americans who smoke, cancer is still the second most common cause of death for women. And though breast cancer was responsible for the deaths of more than 43,000 women last year, lung cancer is actually the #1 deadliest cancer for women, with more than 61,000 deaths.

If you smoke, you can lower your overall cancer risk by quitting tobacco—it’s a major factor in 40 percent of all U.S. cancer diagnoses. You can also help decrease your chances of developing cancer by reducing the amount of red meat and alcohol you consume, eating more fruits and vegetables, and consistly wearing sunblock.

someone holding a heart cutout
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#1 Heart disease

While men are often thought to be at higher risk for heart disease, the truth is that it’s actually the number one killer of both men and women. In the US, heart disease is responsible for 1 in every 5 female deaths, and it affects women of all ages and fitness levels.

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 of a heart attack, which can include pressure in the chest, pain in the arm, back, neck, or jaw, shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and cold sweats. 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 developing a heart condition, nix the cigarettes and practice heart-healthy habits at every age.

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Johns Hopkins Medicine. Septicemia. Accessed July 17, 2023.
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CDC. U.S. Overdose Deaths In 2021 Increased Half as Much as in 2020--But Are Still Up 15%. May 11, 2022.
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CDC. An Update on Cancer Deaths in the United States. Last reviewed February 28, 2022.
American Cancer Society. Risk of Dying from Cancer Continues to Drop at an Accelerated Pace. January 12, 2022.
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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.
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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.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Seat Belts: Get the Facts.” October 7, 2020. Accessed November 23, 2020.
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