Let me have a shot at answering your question by first trying to more
closely define the terms of it. "Health conditions" is a pretty
all-encompassing term. My guess is that the top five most preventable
health conditions in the United States would include conditions like
tooth decay, the common cold, maybe even something like depression.
I further guess, however, that you are interested in diseases that can
cause serious illness, disability and death, but that could be
There is abundant statistical information in this area.
One of the best sources of information is the Federal government. The
Centers for Disease Control, for example, give us this overview on its
"The profile of diseases contributing most heavily to death, illness,
and disability among Americans changed dramatically during the last
century. Today, chronic diseases?such as cardiovascular disease
(primarily heart disease and stroke), cancer, and diabetes?are among
the most prevalent, costly, and preventable of all health problems.
Seven of every 10 Americans who die each year, or more than 1.7
million people, die of a chronic disease. The prolonged course of
illness and disability from such chronic diseases as diabetes and
arthritis results in extended pain and suffering and decreased quality
of life for millions of Americans. Chronic, disabling conditions cause
major limitations in activity for more than one of every 10 Americans,
or 25 million people."
For the most recent available figures for leading causes of death in
the US, as compiled for the year 2003 by the National Center of Health
Statistics, refer to this page:
The top five are:
1. Diseases of the heart: 685,089 or 28% of all US deaths in that year
2. Malignant neoplasms (cancer): 556,02 or 22.7%
3. Cerebrovascular diseases (strokes): 157,689 or 6.4%
4. Chronic lower respiratory disease: 126,382 or 5.2%
5. Accidents: 109, 277 or 4.55%.
Let's omit accidents (not a health condition, though certainly
preventable) and go to number 6 on the list:
6. Diabetes 74,219 or 3.0%.
How many of these deaths--and the chronic illnesses that led to
them--could have been prevented? Let's go back to that first CDC page
where a second chart lists the "actual" causes of death (that is the
causes of the diseases that led to chronic illness and death)and we
get these top five for the year 1990:
1. Tobacco use: 19% of all US deaths that year
2. Poor diet/exercise: 14
3. Alcohol use: 5%
4. Infectious agents: 4%
5. Pollutants, toxins: 3%
How many of these actual causes could be better controlled and their
resulting diseases prevented? Clearly tobacco use, poor diet/
exercise, and alcohol use are examples of behaviors whose modification
can have a big positive impact: fewer people smoking cessations means
less lung cancer and emphysema; more people eating healthfully and
exercising means fewer heart attacks, fewer strokes, less diabetes,
etc. Causes 4 and 5 are environmental rather than behavioral, but
here too greater efforts to control pollution and greater vigilance
against infectious agents could have a big impact on both morbidity
(illness) and mortality.
Are more recent statistics for actual causes of death available? I did
find this source for 2000 (apparently the most recently available):
Interestingly, the top five remain the same in 2000 and they were in
1990; HOWEVER, cause #2 (poor diet/lack of exercise) was very close in
2000 to overtaking the #2 cause, tobacco. We can assume that by this
time (given the increase in obesity among Americans and the decrease
in smoking) that poor diet/little exercise HAS by now overtaken
smoking as the number one actual cause of death in the United States.
This Web page will give you a good summary of this pretty significant trend:
Recall that obesity is the culprit in a devatasting range of diseases,
including coronary disease, hypertension and stroke, and diabetes.
The incidence of both juvenile and adult diabetes is increasing at an
alarming rate throughout the country, especially among lower-income
populations. It is safe to say that effective prevention of
diabetes--by changing people's eating and exercise habits-would do
more for disease prevention than any other single public health
A recent series in the New York Times details the devastating impact
of diabetes on the health and longevity of the poorer residents of New
York City, and also details how prevention efforts have so far been
too inadequate to stem the rising tide of disability, blindess,
amputations and death caused by this cruel disease.
(You will have to register with the NY Times, which is free, to read
this excellent series.)
I hope all of this gives you the kind of overview you were needing.
All the best,