Can 'old age' be the cause of death?
We operate here on the Washington Post obits desk with certain ironclad rules.One of them is that we never write that a person died of "natural causes" or "old age" (or "heart failure," since in the end, everyone's heart fails).
"We have to use a specific medical cause of death," we tell families, who are often exasperated by that news -- especially when the deceased was elderly and no one really knows exactly what the final straw was.
"He was just old," families often say. Or: "She was 97. Her body just gave out!"
We reporters nod and apologize, and then ask them to check the death certificate for the official cause.
But in a story that ran in today's Post, our colleague David Brown reports that as more people live longer and died without an obvious cause, doctors around the world are beginning to wonder whether "old age" should be an official cause of death.
"Part of the reason it's important is that mortality statistics are the backbone of public health," writes Brown, a physician who writes about science and medicine for The Post.
"Without knowing how the members of a population die, and at what ages, epidemiologists can only guess how many deaths are potentially preventable. On the other hand, good mortality data can identify overlooked problems and help public health agencies decide where to direct effort and money."
Brown goes on to identify some of the problems associated with using the "old age" terminology in data-gathering efforts. But if the World Health Organization adopts "old age" as a cause of death, perhaps we will do the same.
| September 19, 2010; 1:32 PM ET
Categories: Emma Brown | Tags: cause of death, david brown washington post, world health organization cause of death
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