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Leading Causes of Death

Leading causes of death are those causes that account for the highest numbers of deaths in a given time period. Leading cause of death rankings are based on the underlying cause of death on the death certificate for 50 rankable causes of death.


In 1951, the Public Health Conference on Records and Statistics recommended that state and federal agencies responsible for identifying diseases of public health importance adopt a uniform ranking procedure using a standard list of causes of death. The list currently used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) has been expanded and altered over time with each subsequent revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

Why It's Important

  • Leading causes of death are widely used as an indicator of a population's overall health status or quality of life.
  • Cause-of-death ranking is a useful tool for illustrating the relative burden of cause-specific mortality.
  • Analysis of mortality by cause is essential for the development of prevention strategies.

What Is Known

Nationally, heart disease and cancer have been the 1st and 2nd leading causes of death, respectively, since at least 1935. Stroke has been among the five leading causes every year since at least 1935. Unintentional injury entered the five leading causes of death in 1946 and chronic lower respiratory diseases entered the five leading causes of death in 1979. In 2020, COVID-19 was the 3rd leading cause of death in New Mexico and in the U.S.

Leading causes of death vary by time period, geographic area, age, race, ethnicity, gender, and other demographic factors.

  1. Hoyert DL. 75 years of mortality in the United States, 1935-2010 NCHS data brief, no 88. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2012, downloaded on 10/24/2014 from «
  2. Death certificate data, New Mexico Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics. Retrieved Mon, 14 March 2022 from the New Mexico Department of Health Indicator-Based Information System (NM-IBIS) for Public Health Web site:«

How It's Tracked

Mortality statistics are compiled in accordance with World Health Organization (WHO) regulations, which specify that member nations classify and code causes of death in accordance with the current revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD). ICD provides the basic guidance used in virtually all countries to code and classify causes of death. Effective with deaths occurring in 1999, the United States began using the 10th revision of this classification, (ICD-10).

ICD not only details disease classification but also provides definitions, tabulation lists, the format of the cause-of-death section of the death certificate, and the rules for coding cause of death.

Tabulations of cause-of-death statistics are based solely on the underlying cause of death. The underlying cause is defined by WHO as the disease or injury that initiated the train of events leading directly to death, or the circumstances of the accident or violence that produced the fatal injury. The underlying cause is selected from the conditions entered by the physician in the cause­of-death section of the death certificate. When more than one cause or condition is entered by the physician, the underlying cause is determined by the sequence of conditions on the certificate, the provisions of ICD, and associated selection rules and modifications.