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Causes of death over 100 years - information and graph


How have causes of death changed from the early 20th century through to the present day? We explore what illnesses or factors have been the biggest causes of death over the decades. Check how you're related to someone with our cousin kinship chart.

In family history, cause of death can be an important factor in building your family tree, as you explore patterns of illness which might occur within your ancestry, as well as external causes of death such as disease and war.


The Office of National Statistics has used information from the 20th century and 21st century mortality files to build up a picture of the biggest causes of death between the years 1915 and 2015, for both males and females. 

According to the ONS research, the top causes of death at the start of the 20th century were very different to those that we see today. This may partially be explained by improvements in medical knowledge that have led to a more comprehensive classification system.

Causes of death compared

In 1915, people were dying in large numbers from infections, but by 2015, the most common causes of death were related to cancer, heart conditions or external causes. 

Between 1915 and 1945, infections were generally the leading cause of death for young and middle-aged males and females, whilst in those aged one to four, infections remained the leading cause until 2005, with the exception of 1975 and 1985.

There was a dramatic decline in the number of people dying from infectious diseases in the 20th century. Poliomyelitis (polio), diptheria, tetanus, whooping cough, measles, mumps and rubella were all virtually wiped out during the second half of the 20th century, after childhood immunisation was introduced.

The motor car as a cause of death

Motor vehicle incidents began to emerge as a leading cause of death in young males and females in 1945, possibly due to blackout restrictions during World War II. 

From 1985 onwards, external causes such as drug misuse, suicide and self-harm were the leading cause of death for young people, particularly affecting men more than women.

Meanwhile heart conditions dominated as the leading cause of death for middle-to older-aged males from 1945 onwards. A similar trend was seen in females during this period, but at older ages; while younger to middle-aged females more frequently died of breast cancer.

The above information was adapted from Office of National Statistics data taken from the 20th century mortality files and 21st century mortality files at the Office of National Statistics. Download the full reports. Data reproduced unver the Open Government Licence V3.0.

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29/11/2017 Share this story   Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

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