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Senior Citizen Statistics

Chronic Diseases are Leading Causes of Death among Senior Citizens

Heart disease and cancer remain top killers of older Americans

August 7, 2006 - Heart disease and cancer have been the two leading causes of death for senior citizens - persons 65 years of age and older - for the past two decades, accounting for nearly a million deaths in 2002, according to the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here is a quick look at chronic disease among senior citizens and more about the causes of their deaths.


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Read more Senior Citizen Statistics


Nearly one-third of all deaths among older persons were due to heart disease, including heart attacks and chronic ischemic heart disease (inadequate supply of blood, caused by blockage of an artery). Cancer accounted for about one-fifth of all deaths in that age group.

The third leading cause of death for older persons is stroke or cerebrovascular disease, followed by chronic lower respiratory diseases (CLRD), which include chronic bronchitis, emphysema, asthma, and other chronic lower respiratory diseases. The leading causes of death vary among different age, sex, and race and Hispanic origin groups.

Note: See charts below to see how you stack up with other seniors.

Increase in Alzheimer's and Renal Diseases

Alzheimer’s disease and renal diseases (including nephritis, nephritic syndrome, and nephrosis) have gained importance as causes of death among older persons over the past two decades.

Alzheimer’s disease death rates increased from 1979 to 1988, stabilized for a few years,8,9 and then increased gradually from 1992 to 1998. In 1999, after the change of the disease classification system from ICD–9 to ICD–10, nearly all deaths previously classified as presenile dementia shifted into the Alzheimer’s disease category. This and other clarifications of the diagnosis increased the number of Alzheimer’s deaths in 1999 compared with 1998 by 58 percent.10 Alzheimer’s disease is now among the 10 leading causes of death for older persons.

In 2002, nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis combined were the fifth leading cause of death for older black women and ranked between the 6th and 10th cause of death for other older persons. As a result of the change to ICD–10 in 1999, deaths from end-stage renal disease (ESRD) were classifi ed as a subcategory of renal failure, consequently increasing the number of deaths attributed to nephritis, nephrotic syndrome or nephrosis.

Older adults are vulnerable to common infectious diseases

Although infectious diseases as a group are no longer ranked among the top causes of death for older persons, influenza and pneumonia and septicemia remain among the top 10. In 2002, they were responsible for 4.7 percent, or about 85,500 deaths, among persons 65 years of age and older.

In addition, the role that infectious diseases play in morbidity and mortality of older persons is not fully apparent. For instance, diabetes mellitus, which is itself one of the leading causes of death among persons ages 65 and older, also is a predictor of infectious diseases related death.

  Prevalence of Selected Chronic Conditions 2003-04, U.S. Citizens 65 and older. NHIS  



%  Men  



All types of heart disease 31.8 37.6 27.5
Any cancer 20.7 24.2 18.2
Asthma 8.9 7.5 10
Breast cancer 4 * 6.9
Cervical cancer 0.9 ~ 1.8
Chronic bronchitis 6 4.6 7.1
Chronic joint symptoms 46 40.3 50.3
Colon/Rectal cancer 2.5 3 2.2
Coronary heart disease 21.4 28 16.5
Diabetes 16.9 19.1 15.1
Doctor's diagnosis of arthritis 50 43.2 54.9
Emphysema 5.2 6.7 4.1
Hay fever 7 6.1 7.7
Hypertension 51.9 47.9 54.5
Kidney disease 3.9 4.4 3.7
Liver disease 1.4 1.6 1.4
Lung cancer 1 1.2 0.8
Melanoma 1.1 1.6 0.7
Prostate cancer 8.2 16.4 ~
Sinusitis 14.2 10.6 16.9
Skin cancer 5.7 7.7 4.3
Stroke 9.3 10.4 8.5
Ulcer 11.9 13.2 11
Uterine cancer 1.2 ~ 2.4

In addition, development of drug-resistant infections may lead to further increases in infectious diseases mortality among older persons. Pneumonia is one of the most serious infections in older adults, especially among men and the oldest old (ages 85 and older) of both sexes. Researchers estimate the 30-day death rate from the onset of pneumonia in elderly patients is from 11 to 70 percent, depending on the type of pneumonia and comorbid conditions. Although pneumonia death rates dropped 30 percent in 1999, primarily due to the change to ICD–10 classification, influenza and pneumonia combined remain in the top 10 leading causes of death for older persons.

Septicemia ranked as the 10th leading cause of death in older persons in 2002. This disease often occurs as a consequence of other bacterial infections of the urinary tract, skin, or respiratory system. In 1999, ICD–10 changes in classifying the underlying cause of death led to a 19-percent increase in the number of septicemia deaths.

Unintentional injuries remain an important cause of death well into old age

Deaths from unintentional injuries (accidents) are the leading cause of death among children and young adults. And although its relative importance decreases among the elderly, it was responsible for 2 percent, or about 34,000 deaths, in 2002 among people 65 years of age and older. Mortality from accidents is almost twice as high among older men as women. Falls, motor vehicle crashes, suffocation, and burns account for most of the unintentional injury deaths among older persons.


Chronic Conditions ranked by % for all seniors, men and women

Condition All
Hypertension 51.9
Doctor's diagnosis of arthritis 50
Chronic joint symptoms 46
All types of heart disease 31.8
Coronary heart disease 21.4
Any cancer 20.7
Diabetes 16.9
Sinusitis 14.2
Ulcer 11.9
Stroke 9.3
Asthma 8.9
Prostate cancer 8.2
Hay fever 7
Chronic bronchitis 6
Skin cancer 5.7
Emphysema 5.2
Breast cancer 4
Kidney disease 3.9
Colon/Rectal cancer 2.5
Liver disease 1.4
Uterine cancer 1.2
Melanoma 1.1
Lung cancer 1
Cervical cancer 0.9
Condition Men
Hypertension 48
Doctor's diagnosis of arthritis 43
Chronic joint symptoms 40
All types of heart disease 38
Coronary heart disease 28
Any cancer 24
Diabetes 19
Prostate cancer 16
Ulcer 13
Sinusitis 11
Stroke 10
Skin cancer 7.7
Asthma 7.5
Emphysema 6.7
Hay fever 6.1
Chronic bronchitis 4.6
Kidney disease 4.4
Colon/Rectal cancer 3
Liver disease 1.6
Melanoma 1.6
Lung cancer 1.2
Condition Women
Doctor's diagnosis of arthritis 55
Hypertension 55
Chronic joint symptoms 50
All types of heart disease 28
Any cancer 18
Sinusitis 17
Coronary heart disease 17
Diabetes 15
Ulcer 11
Asthma 10
Stroke 8.5
Hay fever 7.7
Chronic bronchitis 7.1
Breast cancer 6.9
Skin cancer 4.3
Emphysema 4.1
Kidney disease 3.7
Uterine cancer 2.4
Colon/Rectal cancer 2.2
Cervical cancer 1.8
Liver disease 1.4
Lung cancer 0.8
Melanoma 0.7

Note: Statistics from Trends in Health and Aging, U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National - Click Here.

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