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Causes of Death in the World. 1990, 2005, 2010

on Sat, 05/18/2013 - 02:37

The article Mortality in the World 1970-2010 highlighted that the mortality in the world has significantly decreased from 1970 to 2010 in general population and specific age groups, which is attributable mainly to the improvement of socio-economic conditions including the reduction of poverty, a progress on scientific and medical knowledge and its application in health care, development of new technologies, and improvement in health systems and services, including coverage and accessibility, and a remarkable progress in preventing child deaths. Despite the progress in mortality in most of the regions, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean have raised risk of mortality in the last decades. 

From public health perspective it is relevant not only to have information on the magnitude and distribution of mortality but also on the leading causes of deaths in population and how these are changing over time. This article focuses on this specific subject, providing information on the leading causes of deaths in the world and how these are changing from 1990 to 2010.


Number of death, age-standized and specific mortality rate per 100,000 population by age and sex from Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 (GBD 2010) Results by Cause 1990-2010 were used as population health metrics for the analysis. This dataset provides 235 categories of causes of death by 20 age groups and sex for 1990, 2005 and 2010. 

Data was downloaded from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) GHDx catalogue, specifically the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 (GBD 2010) Results by Cause 1990-2010 as a comma delimited value (CSV) format file and the list of causes of death, categorized by the broad groups: I - Communicable, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional disorders; II – Non-communicable diseases; and III – Injuries, was prepared. 

Interactive data visualizations were designed and developed using Tableau Public to support the exploration and analysis of causes of death. 


It is estimated a total number of 52.7 million deaths in the world in 2010 at all ages, having non-communicable diseases accounting for the higher proportion of deaths, 34.5 million deaths representing 65.5% followed by communicable, maternal, neonatal and nutritional disorders 13.2 million deaths or 24.9% and injuries 5.1 deaths representing 9.6%. As illustrated in the visualization “Trends of groups of death”, from 1990 to 2010 the proportion of death due to non-communicable disease has rose from 57.1% to 65.5% or two of every three deaths in 2010, communicable diseases has decreased 2.7 million deaths from 15.9 million (34.1%) in 1990 to 13.2 million (24.9%) in 2010 representing 17% decrease in the number of deaths and injuries has increased slightly from 8.8% to 9.4%. There is no significant difference in this pattern between males and females. 

This increased in non-communicable diseases can be explained first by the significant increase in life expectancy of the population and the remarkable success of preventable child deaths programs in many countries. As a result, people are living longer and dying at more advanced ages from non-communicable conditions that are tipical to elderly. Second, by the improvement of health-care, health coverage and the response of health systems.

The interactive visualization “Mortality by age and sex in the World, 1990, 2005 and 2010” presents the number and proportion of deaths of the three broad groups of causes by age groups and sex. The distributions of broad groups of causes by age give a difference perspective, the structure of causes of death change systematically with age. Communicable, maternal, neonatal and nutritional disorders are more frequent in early ages, decreasing with age; on the contrary, non-communicable diseases are more frequent in adults, it changes from small proportions in child, adolescents and young ages becoming predominant from 50-54 years old to 80+ years old. Injuries increases slightly in child and younger ages with a peak at 15-19 years old, and it decreases slowly with age. This interactive visualization allows seeing how the mortality has decreased in child ages and increased in 80 and older age groups from 1990 to 2010. This a clear expression on how the death has been postponed to advanced ages. 

Identification of detailed causes is very important for priority settings and planning, since interventions are cause-specific. The data visualization “Causes of death in the World, 1990-2010” shows the detailed leading causes of deaths at global level in 1990, 2005 and 2010 by age groups, sex and broad groups of causes. Two dynamically linked visuals, a treemap and a bar chart with filters by analytic dimensions allows readers to explore leading causes of deaths by age, sex, broad groups of causes and years. The treemap ranks causes of deaths within broad groups of causes; meanwhile the bar chart displays the rank of all causes.

In 2010, Ischemic heart disease is ranked number one cause of death in general population (all ages) accounting for 5.2 million of deaths, 13.3% of total deaths and a mortality rate of 102 per 100,000 population, which  is two times higher than  the mortality due to hemorrhagic and other no-ischemic stroke, ranked second cause of death. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Ischemic stroke, and Trachea, bronchus, and lung cancers are ranked third, fourth and fifth leading cause of death. These top five causes of death account for 33% of total deaths in 2010.  Top four causes of deaths are also tops four causes within non-communicable disease group of causes. These top four causes in 1990 remain the top four in 2010 but with a significant increase in the number of death. 

The top four causes of death in the group of communicable diseases, maternal, neonatal and nutritional disorders in 1990 are Tuberculosis (1.5 million death or 3.2% of total deaths), Preterm birth complications (1.2 deaths, 2.6%), Malaria (1 million death, 2.1%) and Protein-energy malnutrition (0.9 million death, 1.9%). In 2010, three of these top four causes remain having an important change in the case of HIV disease (1.2 million deaths, 2.3%) ranked number one in this group followed by  Tuberculosis (1.2 deaths, 2.3%), Malaria (1.2 million death, 2.2%) and  Preterm birth complications (0.9 million death, 1.6%).

Top three causes of death in the group of injuries in 1990 are Self-harm (0.7 million death, 1.4%), Drown (0.4 million death, 0.9%) and unintentional injuries (0.3 million deaths, 0.8%); meanwhile Self-harm (0.9 million deaths, 1.7%), Falls (0.5 million deaths, 1%) and Motorized vehicle with three or more wheels (0.47 million death, 0.9%) are the top three causes of death in 2010. 


The assessment of detailed causes of death provides relevant information for priority settings, health planning and evaluation of public health interventions. 

National health authorities, health care and health system should be paid attention to non-communicable diseases, particularly to the top four causes: Ischemic heart disease, COPD, Hemorrhagic and other non-ischemic stroke, and ischemic stroke and at the same time, sustain progress on prevention and control of communicable diseases, maternal , neonatal and nutritional conditions. 

It is relevant that health information systems and vital registration systems collect causes of deaths, sex and age groups among other analytic categories and improve the data quality in order to facilitate analysis of causes of death.

Trends in numbers of deaths are of interest and importance for health services and health policies that are designed to reduce the burden of mortality from various causes. Number of death along do not provide a clear indications of whether disease control strategies are working since they are dependent on change of population size and age structure, so it is required to compute age-standardized mortality rates controlling for demographic changes across populations over time.


  • Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 (GBD 2010). Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), 2012.
  • Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 (GBD 2010) Results by Cause 1990-2010. Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), 2012. Available online

P.S. The visualization of this article was selected by Tableau Public as Visualization of the Day on May 21st, 2013.

Tableau Public Visualization of the Day, January 15th, 2013


Russian Sphinx's picture

You showed the data in very clear way, good filters.

I am shocked by the high percentage of self-harm in the injury group.

Rob M's picture

Thanks for your post. i think we   Thanks for your post. I think the problem is people are getting more and more stressed out with all the problems in the world, and increase diseases and of course death. And probably the food we eat is getting so bad! My two cents!

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