I’ve written about death and dying before by sharing personal stories about helping people in my care die with less discomfort. I’ve also written about relating to death as a normal part of life. What I haven’t done is lay out simplified models to help you predict what you are likely to die from. I’m doing that because some causes are preventable. You might want to do something about it ahead of time.
Where you live will have a great effect upon what you will die from. There’s a big difference between what kills people in more developed countries and in less developed ones. In the third world most people die from diseases caused or aggravated by malnutrition, and most of those who die are children. Famine, and food insecurity kills more people globally than any other cause, by a wide margin. Diseases and wars aren’t even close.
By contrast, in developed countries, nearly 90% of those who die are killed by age-related conditions aggravated by lifestyle choices. Here are the ten leading causes of death in the U.S. in order from 2007, the most current year full statistics have been completed for:
- Heart disease
- Cancer (all kinds)
- Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases)
- Chronic lower respiratory diseases
- Accidents (unintentional injuries)
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Influenza and Pneumonia
- Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis (kidney diseases)
The top four causes plus diabetes are greatly affected by what you eat over a lifetime, how much stress you endure, how much extra weight you carry and environmental pollution. Certainly some accidents are preventable, so workplace, home and transportation safety are important. There are highly effective treatments for both influenza and pneumonia. Most who die from those two are infants whose respiratory systems get overwhelmed, and old people whose immune systems are no longer robust.
Cancer is a more complex cause because there are many kinds. Some are more treatable and preventable than others. As with all causes, the kind of cancer you may develop differs between developed and less-developed countries. In developed nations the most likely cancer for men is prostate cancer and for women, breast cancer. However, in the less-developed world the most likely cancer is lung cancer, primarily caused by smoking tobacco.
It’s interesting to note that women in developed countries get 7% more breast cancer than they do in the third world. Obesity, alcohol consumption, smoking, and the number of lifetime menstrual cycles a woman goes through all increase the risk of breast cancer, and White women are more likely than women of color to get it. However, because medical treatment is less available in less-developed nations, more women who manifest breast cancer in these places die from it.
The trend in the developed world is for more people to live to advanced old age, which greatly increases the chances of developing heart disease, vascular disease, prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s, and kidney diseases. That’s why all areas of senior care are growing businesses. All bodies have a shelf life. They aren’t built to last forever. All machines wear out.
Stress kills, in many kinds of ways. Prolonged stress increases blood pressure. Living in highly populated areas increases negative stress, and exponentially increases the chances of physical damage from air pollution and traffic accidents. Living a long way from where you work is in fact a risky behavior, despite people accepting it as normal. All commuters risk more accidents and diseases aggravated by stress. Learning ways to manage stress, such as through meditation and exercise, are not preventative but they can greatly mitigate the damage to your body over time.
It’s important to look closely at the history of your own family. If there’s a trend, like a number of them dying from heart attacks caused by atherosclerosis, it’s more likely you will have this same problem. Family pathology points toward many diseases because of an increased likelihood of genetic predisposition, but similarities in risky behaviors are also worth knowing. Addicts of all kinds run in families. It’s not destiny. It’s something you can avoid by knowing about.
Some people will find this article depressing. I don’t. I think it helps to look at the process of living dispassionately sometimes, to view at it as an exercise in problem solving. We will all die. If you act to address the most likely preventable causes, you’ll increase the enjoyment of whatever time you’ve got left. I wish you all a life full of growth and understanding, at the highest quality you can maintain.