You can see some history here, especially regarding the deadly worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919. A study by the New England Journal of Medicine looked at human factors like population growth, changing social mores and sexual behavior, migration, war and intravenous drug use in the past century. Changes in environmental conditions and ecological changes also contributed to the most common causes of death.
In 1900, the leading cause of death was influenza and pneumonia - which peaked in 1918 when between 50 and 130 million people around the world died in a pandemic. However as medicine improved, the top cause of death was replaced by heart disease by 1950.
In 2010 America's biggest killer was still heart disease - however levels had dropped from 355 per 100,000 people in the mid-20th century to 192 cases.
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