The internet is rife with things you ought to be afraid of. Guns, terrorists, illegal immigrants, WWIII, Kim Jong Un — they wouldn’t be able to instill those levels of fear if there were zero amounts of truth to any of it. I’ll leave it to you to decide which headlines are worth paying attention to and which ones are purely or partially fear mongering. Either way, a large portion of the population loves to saddle up and fire off reasons as to how these great, violent threats are on our doorstep. They share articles about isolated, albeit true, incidents and make it sound like the problem is one of the worst problems the U.S. has ever faced. This form of spreading information is so prevalent that one would think violent crime is at an all time high (it’s not), and of course many news agencies are culpable for this too.

Here’s a headline you don’t often see: over a thousand people in the U.S. died today due to heart disease.

According to the CDC, the leading causes of death in the United States are as follows (the number reflects how many people died of this in 2016):

  • Heart disease: 633,842
  • Cancer: 595,930
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 155,041
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 146,571
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 140,323
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 110,561
  • Diabetes: 79,535
  • Influenza and pneumonia: 57,062
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 49,959
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 44,193

According to the FBI, there were approximately 17,250 murders in 2016. That’s less than half of the suicide rate from the same year. To put it in perspective: for the numbers of homicides to match the number of deaths by heart disease, the homicide rate would need to increase by about 3,700% before it started to pass our country’s leading killer.

The whole point of terrorism is to instill mass amounts of fear in a population. 9/11 will forever be etched into the psyche of Americans.

According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), there were 68 deaths as a result of terrorism in the United States in 2016. That is about 0.39% of the homicides, and 0.01% of deaths from heart disease. Still, terrorism is on the minds and airwaves of many Americans today; something like Alzheimer’s is not so prevalent, until you or your loved one are the ones dealing with it.

Some of these things are preventable. Many accidents are preventable, as is suicide. There are many methods to prevent heart disease, such as healthy diets, regular exercise, watching weight and limiting/excluding smoking and alcohol. However, we don’t see nearly as much political discussion on preventing the U.S.’s number one killer. Instead, the focus is generally on terrorism and crime. Why is that?

The obvious answer is that we focus on things that could possibly do physical harm to people outside of the victim. Diabetes isn’t going to kill an innocent bystander; cancer is not contagious. Because of that, we seem to be able to block out causes of death that don’t have a clear and obvious perpetrator. Heart disease feels like something that happens to other people and no malicious person is responsible, so it doesn’t quite feel like so much of a threat. However, that may change when you’re in your early 60s and suffering from a heart attack — but then it’s too late.

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We also focus on things that can kill you young, and many of these causes of death affect the elderly. Deaths seem much more tragic when they involve people who have so much more life to live — the worst of these involving children.

Even cancer doesn’t seem to captivate the hearts of as many Americans as terrorism.

However, both of these points do not adequately address car accidents. In 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were a reported 37,461 deaths on American roads. That’s still over double the homicide rate. There are many efforts to push for a safer auto-industry, but the public psyche doesn’t seem grasp just how many auto-related deaths actually happen on a daily basis. Someone accidentally shooting and killing someone else is going to garner a lot more news coverage than someone accidentally crashing their car into someone and killing them, even if the person is driving drunk.

Of course, that’s because it’s all so normal. The devil you know doesn’t seem nearly as terrifying as, say, a heart attack. The are a disproportionate level of protests, awareness and efforts toward crime compared to programs that promote exercise and healthy diets, or research institutions that aim to cure specific diseases — something far less dramatic that would conceivably save far more lives.

Some have found better methods of marketing — for example, there are many foundations that are searching for ways to combat the various types of cancer, and their names are fairly well known. Still, that sense of urgency and despair is not quite as tangible as the fear behind a death from a malicious perpetrator, and the attention is still vastly disproportionate.

That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be efforts to combat things like homicide and terrorism — they must be addressed and we must continue to perpetuate the consistent decline in violent crimes over the last few years. Of course to the victims of these heinous crimes and their loved ones, statistics and numbers mean nothing at all. But if we’re looking at the most widespread killers in the U.S., they don’t involve guns, illegal immigrants or terrorists — they often don’t involve anyone but the victims themselves.

All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.