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The man who studies how Americans die

Bob Anderson has a good idea of what can kill you.

For two decades, he has studied mortality data pulled from millions of U.S. death certificates by the National Center for Health Statistics. He looks for patterns in that data, and he oversees when the agency releases annual figures for death and the leading reasons why people die nationwide.

In 2014, 2.6 million Americans died, according to the center’s latest available data, and the death rate dipped to 724.6 deaths per 100,000 people, down 1 percent compared to the previous year and a record low. Heart disease caused nearly one out of four of those deaths. And from birth, the average American can expect to live nearly 79 years.

No surprises here, if you ask Anderson.

“We generally don’t see big increases or decreases year to year,” he said.

Over the years, this massive dataset’s biggest shift that Anderson can recall occurred when stroke dropped from the third-highest ranking cause of death in 2007, he said. Nearly a decade later, it’s now the fifth-leading cause of death among Americans.

Studying the way Americans die can be grim, Anderson said, but his work has fostered a positive perspective about what is most likely to result in death, and what isn’t. For example, just 10 conditions in 2014 accounted for nearly 75 percent of all U.S. deaths. At the same time, he is “tuned into things that people often don’t think about,” such as arthropod-borne viral encephalitis, of which three people died in 2014.

“Here’s this disease you’ve never thought about before, and you’re thinking about it now,” he said.

Top 10 U.S. Deaths by Percent in 2014

    • 23.4%

Heart disease

    • 22.5%


    • 5.6%

Chronic lower respiratory diseases

    • 5.2%

Accidents, such as car wrecks and falls

    • 5.1%

Cerebrovascular diseases, such as stroke

    • 3.6%

Alzheimer’s disease

    • 2.9%

Diabetes mellitus

    • 2.1%

Influenza and pneumonia

    • 1.8%

Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis

    • 1.6%

Source: National Center for Health Statistics

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