NHS70: Leading causes of death from 1945 to 2015

File photo of the NHS logo as the National Health Service (NHS) prepares to celebrate its 70th anniv

File photo of the NHS logo as the National Health Service (NHS) prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire - Credit: PA

The health of the nation has changed dramatically over the past 70 years.

While infections such as tuberculosis (TB) posed a major danger to life in 1948, the introduction of the BCG for children in 1953 meant rates - which were already falling due to improved living conditions - continued to drop.

Up until the 1940s, infections had generally been the leading cause of death for young people and the middle-aged.

But infectious diseases - such as 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.

For the very young - those aged one to four - infections remained one of the main causes of death until 2005, figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show.

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Its data reflects the rise in popularity of the car, with the 1940s being the first decade that motor vehicle accidents were the leading cause of death for one age group, while they went on to become the biggest threat for young people of other ages through subsequent decades.

While the standard of living has vastly improved for most of the population, it is now lifestyle factors that pose the biggest threat to health.

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Drinking too much alcohol, smoking, a poor diet and not doing enough exercise are all contributing to conditions such as obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancers and dementia, and for the first time people are living longer, but not necessarily healthier lives.

Simon Gillespie, chief executive at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said that when the charity was founded in the 1960s, treatment for a heart attack was limited to painkillers and bed rest, with survival rates low.

'Today, thanks to dedicated research, more than 70pc of people now survive a heart attack,' he said.

'We've made huge progress, but now is no time to get complacent. Heart and circulatory diseases - including heart attacks and strokes - are still responsible for a quarter of all deaths in the UK, and are the biggest killer globally.

'Right now there are seven million people living with these conditions in the UK, and our ageing population means this number is only going to increase.'

Life expectancy in 1948 was 65.9 for men and 70.3 for women, while in 2016 it was 79.5 and 83.1 respectively.

Here is a breakdown of the main causes of death during each decade since 1945, using the ONS figures.


In 1945, three years before the NHS was created, TB was by far the biggest killer overall. But for the first time, being killed in a motor vehicle accident was the most serious danger to one age group - boys aged five to 14. Men over the age of 55 were most at risk of death from diseases of the coronary arteries, while breast cancer caused the most deaths in women aged 45-49. After that, cerebral haemorrhage (a type of stroke) took the most women's lives between the ages of 50-69. Heart conditions caused the most deaths in women aged 70 plus.


Bronchopneumonia (a severe type of pneumonia) posed the biggest threat to children aged one to four, and motor vehicle accidents for those aged four to nine along with males aged 15-29. Heart conditions were then the biggest killer of men aged 35 and up and in women aged 55 plus. Heart conditions dominated as the leading cause of death for middle-to older-aged males from 1945 onwards, while a similar trend was seen in females during this period, but at older ages. Younger to middle-aged females more frequently died of breast cancer, as they did in 1955 when the disease killed the most women aged 10-19 and 35-54. Meanwhile TB was still the biggest threat for 20-34-year-old females.


Bronchopneumonia again caused the most deaths of children aged one to four, but the rising popularity of the car meant motor vehicle accidents took the most lives of both sexes between the ages of five and 24. Women aged 24-30 were most likely to die due to 'suicide and self-inflicted poisoning by analgesic and soporific substances,' while breast cancer took the most lives of females aged 30-54. Heart disease was the biggest killer for women over that age, and men aged 30 onwards.


TB and pneumonia were no longer taking the lives of as many young children, with heart conditions now causing the most deaths among those aged one to four. Motor accidents were the biggest killer of females aged five to 24, and males aged five to 29, with heart conditions causing the most deaths of men aged 30 plus. As seen 10 years earlier, women aged 24-30 were most likely to die due to suicide, while breast cancer took the most lives of females aged 30-54 followed by heart conditions in older women.


The most common causes of death in males was much the same as a decade earlier, although men aged 30-34 were by now most likely to die by suicide. The main causes of death in women were also very similar to 10 years previously, although now suicide was not the most common cause of death at any age. Motor vehicle accidents killed the most females aged five to 24, cancers were the biggest threat to those aged 25 to 59, while heart conditions took the most lives of women aged 60 and over.


Meningococcal infection (most commonly meningitis) was the biggest cause of death in one to four-year-olds. Leukaemia killed the most boys aged five to nine, while girls between those ages were most likely to die from a brain tumour. Motor vehicle accidents were responsible for the most deaths in 10 to 24-year-olds of both sexes. Men aged 25 to 34 were most likely to die as a result of suicide, with heart conditions being the biggest killer of males over that age. The greatest threat to women aged 25 to 59 was cancer, followed by heart conditions in those aged 60 plus.


Meningococcal infection remained the biggest cause of death in one to four-year-olds of both sexes, followed by brain tumours in both boys and girls aged five to nine. Cerebral palsy killed both the most girls and boys aged 10-14. Improved road safety by this time can be seen to be having a positive effect, with only the 15-19 age bracket having the most deaths due to traffic accidents in both sexes. Suicide was the biggest cause of death in men aged 20-39 and women aged 25 to 29. Cancer was responsible for the most deaths in women aged 30 to 74 while heart disease was the biggest threat to men aged 40.


Brain tumours were the single biggest reason for children's deaths, until the age of 15, when suicide became the leading cause. In men this lasted up until the age of 44, when heart problems became the biggest killer. Women over the age of 30 were most likely to die from cancer, although for the first time dementia became the main cause of death, in those aged 80 plus. The biggest threat to men aged 60 to 74 was lung cancer, after which heart disease again became the biggest killer.

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