Most of us have absolutely no clue how we will die.
But there's enough data out there to give us a good sense of the diseases or accidents most likely to befall us.
Using mortality information from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2005 to 2014, Nathan Yau at Flowing Data made an interactive to map out death trends for men and women from the age of 0 to 100.
The chart shows percentages — not absolute counts — for the 20 categories of disease deaths the CDC tracks, as well as deaths from external causes.
What's most revealing is how much the risks change as we age.
As you can see, the risk of death from chronic diseases like cancer, circulatory causes (i.e., heart disease), and respiratory issues (for example, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) starts to rise at about age 20 and keep climbing.
Meanwhile, the risk of death from "external causes" (like traffic accidents) starts to shrink at about 20.
In the chart below, you'll notice the trend lines look remarkably similar for women, except for when it comes to external causes. Yau points out, "For females, it [deaths from external causes] accounts for about 5 percent of deaths. It’s twice as common for males, and mostly at a young age pre-40s."
These trends have dramatically morphed over time. Yau's data covers a recent period (again, from 2005 to 2014). But if you go all the way back to 1900, as the New England Journal of Medicine did in the chart below, you can get an even richer view of how causes of death have transformed:
The illnesses that did us in in 1900 — when life expectancy at birth was 47 — are quite different from what we see in 2010, when Americans could expect to live until 79. Chronic illnesses (such as cancer and heart disease) as well as diseases of aging (Alzheimer's) have overtaken infectious diseases like tuberculosis.
Thanks to knowledge gained through science — discovering antibiotics and the lifesaving effects of better hygiene — we've largely eliminated (at least in the developed world) many of the common mortality risks that used to plague us. That's a big part of the reason why you see deaths from pneumonia, tuberculosis, influenza, diphtheria, and gastrointestinal infections go down over time.
Doctors have also gotten a lot better at managing diabetes, decreasing the risk of dying from kidney disease (nephropathies in the chart).
But while we're living much longer on average, plenty of people still die prematurely of preventable causes, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (or COPD, a "non-infectious airway disease" on the chart), which is linked to smoking. The risk of heart disease, another leading killer, is also increased by smoking, as well as by being overweight and having diabetes. Changing behaviors to reduce disease risk can't be easily fixed with a vaccine.
Other things that kill us today, like cancer, are not always preventable. But as more people are diagnosed, and we gain more knowledge about cancer, we'll learn more about how to defeat it. Hopefully in less than 100 years we'll see cancer and heart disease shrink away as primary causes of death just as TB and pneumonia did before. What will replace them in the mortality charts of the future is as mysterious as death itself.