What Are the Top Leading Causes of Death for Men?

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By Arnold Cuenca, DO, Scripps Health

The current average life expectancy for men is 76 years. If you’re a man who wants to push that number as high as possible — or a woman who wants the same for your husband, father or brother — you may be interested in the leading causes of death for men and what you can do to help prevent them.

Heart disease tops the list. Heart disease includes a number of heart conditions, including heart failure, arrhythmia, and coronary artery disease. Coronary artery disease develops when plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. This causes the artery to narrow and makes it difficult for blood to carry oxygen to the heart, which can lead to a heart attack.

Heart disease can often be managed or even reversed with medical care, lifestyle changes, or both. Controlling blood pressure and keeping cholesterol and weight in check can lower the risk of a heart attack. Being a non-smoker, eating a low-fat, heart-healthy diet and getting cardiovascular exercise are also important.

The leading causes of cancer death in men are lung cancer, prostate cancer and colorectal cancer. Ninety percent of lung cancer is related to smoking — so if you smoke, quit. Avoid secondhand smoke as much as possible, too.

Most men should begin having a discussion with their doctor about prostate screening exams at age 40. The decision to screen for prostate cancer is a shared medical decision based on each individual’s risk factors and symptoms. Colon cancer is very curable when detected early. Two accepted methods of colon cancer screening are a colonoscopy and a test to check for blood in the stool. Talk with your doctor about which test is right for you. Generally, most men should have their first colon cancer screening at age 50. If there is a family history of colon cancer or other risk factor, screenings may be recommended sooner or more frequently.

Unintentional injuries are also a leading cause of death. That’s a formal way of saying “accidents” and includes things like fatal falls, sports injuries, fires and car accidents. In many cases, of course, these can be prevented with common sense and safety measures. Don’t drive while intoxicated, distracted, or tired, and wear a seatbelt at all times. Install smoke detectors at home and plan an escape route in case of fire or other emergency. Take precautions when using ladders or working on the roof. Spend a little time planning for safety in all activities. It may save a life.

A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is disrupted, either by a blood clot blocking blood vessel passage or by a blood vessel tearing. Deprived of the oxygen carried by the blood, the affected brain cells begin to die, causing brain damage. If the brain is without oxygen for too long, a stroke can be fatal.

Many of the risk factors for heart disease also apply to stroke, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, tobacco use, diabetes and lack of exercise. Keeping the heart healthy can also help prevent stroke.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is also on the list. COPD refers to two lung diseases: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Both can disrupt breathing, leading to shortness of breath and difficulty performing everyday activities. Frequently the two exist together. Many cases of COPD may be preventable; between 80 percent and 90 percent of COPD deaths are caused by smoking. Breathing in some industrial pollutants also may raise the risk of developing COPD, so take steps to minimize exposure.

Rounding out the list is diabetes. Now considered an epidemic, diabetes affects the body’s ability to produce or use insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas that helps the body use glucose (blood sugar) for energy. Uncontrolled diabetes increases blood sugar in the bloodstream and upsets normal body functions. When blood sugar remains high, it may damage organs such as the eyes, kidneys, heart and limbs.

Type 1 diabetes occurs most often in children and young adults. It is an autoimmune disease, which means the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys its own insulin-producing (beta) cells. 90-95 percent of Americans with diabetes have Type 2, which develops over time as a result of lifestyle factors such as obesity and lack of exercise.

If not treated, diabetes can lead to serious or fatal complications, including heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease. Fortunately, once diabetes is diagnosed, it can be managed with medication and lifestyle changes. In many cases, type 2 diabetic complications may be prevented or even reversed with weight loss and exercise.

Dr. Arnold Cuenca is a family medicine and sports medicine physician with Scripps Health. “To Your Health” is brought to you by the physicians and staff of Scripps Health. For more information or a physician referral, please call 1-800-SCRIPPS.

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