Parents Need to Know: What is the Number One Killer Of Teenagers?

By Nicola Kirkpatrick

Updated December 20, 2018


They aren't little kids anymore, and yet they aren't quite adults. In many ways, our teenagers still need our protection, even as grey areas arise as to just how much freedom of choice they should be given regarding their choices. As parents (or guardians) it is our responsibility to ensure that they remain safe, despite their best and most often unintentional efforts to put themselves in harm's way.

A huge part of protecting our teenagers is understanding why they sometimes put themselves at risk. So, now the question needs to be asked: what is the number one killer of teenagers?

Let's take a closer look at how the statistics line up.

Let The Statistics Speak For Themselves: What Is The Number One Killer Of Teenagers?

Stuck in that strange limbo between childhood and adulthood for several years, teenagers are more often than not characterized by their rebellious natures and careless behavior. So, does this recklessness and rebelliousness factor into the statistics related to the discussion of what is the number one killer of teenagers? We'll take a look at the top five leading causes of teen deaths to see if this is the case; starting with number 5…

Numbers 5 And 4: Heart Disease And Cancer

Heart disease, affecting teenagers? Yes, while it is true that we often associate heart disease with older adults and the elderly, the fact of the matter is that even teens can be affected as well. According to studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Center for Health Statistics (which looked at data from 1999 to 2006) and was last appended in 2010, heart disease accounted for at least 3 percent of all teen deaths. This statistic was further corroborated by the National Center for Health Statistics again in 2015 when heart disease was found to still place fifth in the ranking of leading causes of death.


This 3 percent is still significant enough to warrant attention since this is essentially 3 out of every 100 teenagers in the United States that are being affected. So, what is allowing heart disease to rise so high in the rankings of causes of death for teenagers? Well, the Texas Heart Institute and the National Center for Health Statistics both assessed the data in conjunction with past research and came to the same conclusion - it was the same causes of heart disease that affected adults that were affecting teenagers.

This encompassed factors that were primarily hereditary, such as high blood pressure and also dietary factors like high cholesterol. Other dietary and lifestyle choices were also referenced; such as smoking and physical inactivity. The rising obesity epidemic in the United States was highlighted specifically as a primary factor in the rise of heart disease in teenagers. While approximately a third of adults (30 to 35 percent) in the United States are obese, children have a lesser, but still quite significant, statistic of a quarter of them suffering from obesity (22 to 27 percent).

Cancer comes in fourth in the ranking of leading causes of death among teenagers. Accounting for approximately 6 percent of teen deaths, cancer doubles the death toll of heart disease. The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health has reported that approximately 70,000 teenagers and young adults are diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States-accounting for about 5 percent of cancer diagnoses in the United States. This is about six times the number of cancers diagnosed in children ages 0-14.

The most common cancers in adolescents and young adults (AYAs) are:

  • Brain and other Central Nervous System Tumors
  • Breast
  • Cervical
  • Colorectal
  • Germ Cell Tumors
  • Extracranial Germ Cell Tumor (Childhood)
  • Extragonadal Germ Cell Tumor
  • Leukemia
  • Liver
  • Lymphoma
  • Melanoma
  • Sarcomas
  • Bone
  • Soft Tissue Sarcoma
  • Uterine Sarcoma
  • Testicular
  • Thyroid

When it comes to disease-related deaths among teenagers and young adults, cancer undoubtedly tops that list.


Numbers 3 And 2: Homicide And Suicide

As we said before; teenagers are stuck in an awkward limbo between childhood and adulthood for over half a dozen years. With the onset of adolescence, these teenagers begin to want to take on more responsibility; they want to shape, define and refine their identity. This period in life is also earmarked by bouts of rebelliousness and recklessness, as well as the pursuit of larger than life dreams and aspirations. However, this period of self-discovery also come with changes in their biology - changing physical appearances and an often maddening dose of hormones.

Psychologists over the years have often stated that the teenage years are undoubtedly some of the most emotionally turbulent times in our lives. It is also often theorized that it is at this time in our lives that many mental health issues, like depression, anxiety, addiction, and body dysmorphic disorder, begin to take root in our minds. This is sadly evidenced by the fact that suicide is now listed as the second highest ranking cause of teen death in the United States.

Up until late in the last decade, homicides held the number two spot in teen deaths. However, while the prevalence of teen homicides has been falling, teen suicides have been on the rise. This is why, as parents and guardians, we need to not only focus on the physical health of our teenagers but also on their mental health as well.

Number 1: Accidents

What is the number one killer of teenagers? Accidents.

Remember when we talked about recklessness (which more often than not goes hand in hand with rebelliousness as well)? In fact, approximately 50 percent of all teenage deaths are the direct result of some unintentional injury. However, this statistic is so large that it can be further separated and refined into four subcategories.

The fourth and smallest (but still significant) part of the accident category is the "unintentional discharge of a firearm." The United States is one of the primary countries in the world that promotes gun ownership to some degree - as even referenced by the Second Amendment. Well over 40 percent of Americans live in a household that has at least one firearm. However, while our Second Amendment rights are important, gun safety is important as well, and the lives of our teens (and, in fact, all of our children) should be our primary concern. Teaching our teens proper gun safety and the importance of supervision when using firearms is paramount. Secure spaces for storing firearms (like gun safes) are important as well.


The third and second parts of the accident category, regarding statistical size, are unintentional drowning and unintentional poisoning. This harkens back to what we have reiterated several times about supervision and education. Reckless behavior and a lack of knowledge can often lead to these situations.

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading section of the accident category, with three-quarters of teenage accident deaths being motor vehicle-related. In fact, even if motor vehicle accidents were their separate category altogether, they would still rank as the number one cause of teen death. This is the true answer to the question: What is the number one killer of teenagers?

So why is this the case? Well for one thing, when surveyed, at least one in four teenagers stated that they simply don't use a seatbelt on every ride. Reasons for this included that they simply forgot, they were not planning on traveling far, they were going to a party, or that the seatbelt was not comfortable.

Texting while driving is also a primary factor, with two out of every five teenagers admitting that they have ridden with a teen driver who was texting. A similar number of teens also admitted to riding as a passenger with a teen driver who was talking on a phone, and 95 percent said they think other teens have ridden with drivers who were texting or talking on a phone.

Lastly, drunk driving is a significant factor as well, with 40 percent of alcohol-related fatal car crashes involving teens. This is not a recent issue, as in as far back as 2003, at least 31 percent of teen drivers who died in car accidents were established to have been drinking.

What Can I Do To Save My Teenager?

By already asking the initial question ("What is the number one killer of teenagers?") you have started taking a step in the right direction. The fact of the matter is that while your teens may be growing into functioning adults, they simply aren't quite there yet. Being a teenager is characterized by making mistakes and learning from them; however, as their parent or guardian, it is your job to make sure that those mistakes are not fatal ones. Teaching your teens critical thinking techniques, as well as highlighting the importance of safety, can both go a long way to prevent accidents.


When it comes to mental health issues, it is important to realize that you have a responsibility to be not only a caregiver to your teenager but also a friend. Sometimes simply taking the time out of your day to listen to their problems (no matter how simple they may seem) is all that you need to do. However, the importance of seeking out professional help cannot be overlooked as well. If you think that your teen is showing signs of depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses, then speaking to a mental health professional as soon as possible could prevent fatal outcomes.

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