What comes to mind when you think of taking risks with your health—driving recklessly, or maybe abusing alcohol or illegal drugs? Those behaviors are certainly risky. However, many people have less dramatic behaviors that are just as dangerous in the long run. Tobacco use, unbalanced nutrition (too many calories and/or too much of one food group and not enough of the others) and a lack of physical activity are some of the key risk factors for the most common causes of death.

What are the most common causes of death?

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Top 10 Causes of Death (in order)

  1. Heart Disease
  2. Cancer
  3. Stroke
  4. Chronic lower respiratory disease
  5. Accidents (many are alcohol-related)
  6. Diabetes
  7. Flu and pneumonia
  8. Alzheimer’s disease
  9. Kidney disease
  10. Infection


Heart disease, cancer and stroke are the most common causes of death in the United States. Nearly 1.5 million people in the United States die each year from one of these diseases, or from complications of these diseases. That’s more than the number of American soldiers who died in the Civil War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined, and it happens every year.

Don’t these diseases run in families? How much control do I really have?

It’s true that heart disease, stroke and some kinds of cancer tend to occur more often in people who have a family history of the disease. However, your genes are only part of your risk for these diseases. In many cases, your behavior is at least as important to your health as your family history. If you choose unhealthy behaviors, you are at greater risk of having a serious health problem.

What can I do to reduce my risk?

The following are 3 of the most important ways to reduce your risk of the top 3 causes of death:

  1. Quit smoking, or don’t start.
  2. Eat fewer high-fat foods and more fruits and vegetables.
  3. Be more physically active.

Even by doing just 1 of these things, you will improve your health and reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer and stroke.

I know why I should eat fewer high-fat foods, but why bother eating more fruits and vegetables?

Fruits and vegetables are important sources of vitamins, minerals and fiber. To improve your eating habits, you’ll want to cut down on foods that are high in fat and calories, such as soda pop and hamburgers. By replacing those foods with healthier choices, such as fruits and vegetables, you’ll get better nutritional quality from the foods you eat. Also, adding fruits and vegetables—and learning new ways to prepare them—can keep you from getting bored with a more healthy diet.

Sugar-sweetened drinks, such as fruit juice, fruit drinks, regular soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened or flavored milk and sweetened iced tea can add lots of sugar and calories to your diet. But staying hydrated is important for good health. Substitute water, zero-calorie flavored water, non-fat or reduced-fat milk, unsweetened tea or diet soda for sweetened drinks. Talk with your family doctor or a dietitian if you have questions about your diet or healthy eating for your family.

Is it better to have an exercise plan instead of just trying to be more physically active throughout the day?

Ideally, we would all get enough exercise in our daily lives to burn the energy that we get from eating food. Unfortunately, many things about modern life let people avoid being physically active. For example, many people drive almost everywhere they go, and many jobs require people to sit at a desk for much of the day.

One obvious way to burn more energy is to participate in structured exercise, such as aerobics or basketball. However, you can also burn energy by adding more movement to your everyday activities. For example, try walking in place or riding a stationary bicycle while you watch TV. Take the stairs instead of the elevator or squeeze in a couple of 15-minute walking breaks during the day.

I’ve tried to make these kinds of changes before and I wasn’t successful. How can I do better this time?

Unhealthy behaviors become habits, so changing them can be very hard. You’re more likely to make changes in your habits if you set a specific goal for yourself. The kind of goal you choose and how you think about it is very important. If you set a goal that focuses on an outcome—for example, losing 20 pounds—it can be hard to know where to start or what to do. Instead, set a goal that focuses on a specific behavior. For example, choose one specific thing to change about the way you eat, such as adding a piece of fruit to one meal each day. This type of goal is easier to think about and plan for. Once your new healthy behavior becomes a habit, you can move on to another goal.

If you set a goal to be more physically active, you can improve your chances of success by exercising with other people. For example, set up a walking group at work or in your neighborhood, or ask a friend to be your exercise buddy. This will provide you with support and make physical activity more enjoyable.

Other Organizations

  • U.S. Surgeon General’s My Family Health Portrait

Written by editorial staff