What Will You Die From?

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
  • Diabetes
  • Influenza and Pneumonia
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis (kidney diseases)
  • Septicemia

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.


Filed under Metaphysics, Technology, Thinking about thinking

19 responses to “What Will You Die From?

  1. Interesting post. No, I don’t find it depressing either. Since, I do all of the things that are good for you now….I am annoyingly healthy, eat well, exercise, do yoga, meditate…it makes it even more of a mystery as to how the final days will take shape. Intriguing!

    I would like to die of old age at peace knowing that I have lived fully. Gonna make it happen.

    • I’m glad to hear you have so many good habits, Debbie. They don’t technically increase life span, but every one of them will make life more enjoyable while you have it! At my age (about 20 years down the road from you) it’s all about maintenance, and intelligent reduction of risks. For example, I don’t go on ladders any more, I drive shorter distances, and I try in general not to be in a hurry. Less stress and less likelihood of accidents. Since I began kayaking again, my weight and muscle tone are improved. I expect raising the puppy will be a healthy activity too.

      Now that you have survived and adapted to your brain injury, the statistical likelihood is that when you age, you will develop some condition that runs in your family. Keep your eye on those.

  2. Pingback: What Will You Die From? (via Invisible Mikey) | 2012out

  3. I didn’t find it depressing either. Several years ago, my word of the year was “prepare,” which I understood to mean “prepare to die.” Another phrase that came to me that year was “love your death.” My point is that I found a great peace in accepting that I was going to die. I was motivated to not waste time (although I still do) on the small stuff, to think about every day of my life as a bonus gift, which it is.

    Crazy Horse and Sioux warriors supposedly called out “Hoka hey, it’s a good day to die,” as they rode into battle. That’s how I think of it. If we live well, then every day is a good day to die.

    Interesting post, full of info. Certainly makes us think about things, yes?

    • It was certainly my intent to make readers think about these things, so if it did I am content. Thank you, Galen. I agree with you that accepting death as another doorway, and being ready to enter whenever it may appear, is a healthy mindset.

  4. Cancer runs rampant in my family history. My mother, father, half-brother, both grandfathers and a number of uncles have faced it. For all of the males I mentioned, it was prostate cancer and I already go through yearly screenings for it.

    It’s kind of an odd thing to have hanging over your head when I really think about it. If my odds are good that I will have to endure something like cancer, and I know it, should that have some sort of effect on how I plan my life? Is it something a potential wife should be made aware of? Should that risk be passed on to the next generation? They’re not things I think of frequently, since those bridges still aren’t yet visible, but you have a propensity for drawing these things out.

  5. I wouldn’t worry particularly about that one, Tim. Almost all men, providing they live long enough, get prostate cancer. In a way, it is an indication you have the genes for longevity! Prostate cancer is highly treatable if diagnosed in the early stages, so you are doing the right thing to be screened. Plan to live long, and well.

  6. Hi,
    I love these kinds of explorations, although you didn’t include karma in the list! 🙂 In my tradition it’s said that once you’ve exhausted your lifespan, that’s it. Nothing can save you. However, you can engage in spiritual practices to avoid untimely death as well as longevity practices. And of course you can take practical steps like the ones you’ve mentioned to avoid untimely death.

    I’ve been a super stress bunny all my life so that doesn’t sound too promising. However, I’ve been told I have a long lifeline in my hand, so who knows! This was interesting:

    “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.”

    I’m not quite sure what you mean when you say they are not preventative. If they mitigate the damage to your body, isn’t that preventative to some degree?

    Thanks for the intriguing look at death.

  7. LOL – it’s only because karma is so difficult to quantify. I’m glad you noted the subtlety of the word preventative, Sandra. I agree with you. When your time is up, it’s up. To say preventative would be saying that meditation extends life, or that being enlightened extends physical life or cures catastrophic disease. It doesn’t. The machine lasts as long as bodies last. Nobody lives to be 200, no matter how holy you are. The average is 80-ish, no matter what, and a very, very few can get to 90 or 100. However, we can do all sorts of things to raise the quality of our lives. It’s better to die at 70-80 years and be almost always pain-free, lucid and active than to be 100 and suffering for 40 years.

  8. Heart problems I bet since I’m fat and don’t eat well. Kinda need to order a salad more often and exercise more..

    • You are still young enough to get ahead of the process of heart enlargement, Lisa. You might be able to qualify for some medically-supervised assistance toward losing weight. Some states have that for low-income residents. Ask your counselor or therapist for advice and info. I also realize you are so short of funds you qualify under the category of food insecurity. It costs more to eat better, and fast food, the worst food for anyone, is cheap. I think that is immoral. Fruits and veggies and legumes are pretty cheap if you have a Farmer’s Market near you. You might begin by walking more, to increase your heart and metabolic rates. Start with modest goals to make them more achievable. The world would be worse off if you died too young. You’ve got important work ahead of you.

  9. sb

    Hi Mikey!
    Haven’t been around in a while but I couldn’t resist responding to this. I’ve always been someone who tries to be healthy. Of course, we all have our moments but I’ve tried to keep my unhealthy moments to a minimum. It turns out though, being healthy doesn’t always make a difference.
    I’ve had a summer that put a lot of things in perspective for me. I have come to the understanding that things happen, and instead of become depressed about the possibility of becoming fatally ill… The information I learned about myself has forced me to live far better than I was before in terms of pushing myself to do things I wouldn’t normally do. So, like you said what you wrote about being depressing more some, for me, it’s just enlightening.


    • Sarah, my prodigal daughter of the ether, how wonderful to hear from you!
      I assumed you were busy with school and the kind of “real” writing we confessional memoirists only dream about.

      You were one of the first online writers I enjoyed reading. Whatever you are going through, please know that I am wishing and praying for the experience to purify and refine your understanding of your own and all life.

      (When not confronting the impermanence of life, Sarah Baram has been writing a tasteful, thoughtful, well-illustrated blog about FOOD, called gastrobelly.
      http://www.gastrobelly.com/ )

  10. Val

    The internet will probably the thing that’ll do for me, as I sit far too much. But my mind is (particularly lately since I got a previous medical problem sorted out) is active and for me that’s one great health benefit.

    I don’t find this a depressing subject. Though I was thinking last night about who in my family I might take after, not so much in terms of hereditary diseases but in terms of longevity. One side of my family were long-lived, the other side not. So how can one tell? I think that probably one can’t, so the best thing to do is to try and enjoy life if one can. I get bouts of depression, nowhere near as badly as I used to in the past, but even then I’ve got a more positive than negative mentality.

    So what are you? A health professional? (I suppose I should read your ‘about’ page! I shall go and do that now!)

    • I currently work as a Radiologic Technologist in an Urgent Care clinic. I have been an MRI Tech, a Medical Assistant and a Nurse Delegate Caregiver in a Dementia Care facility. However, prior to these jobs, I spent 20 years in the Entertainment industry, which is why I often write about movies and TV. I’ve posted about all these jobs at some point. Thanks for asking.

  11. I don’t find it depressing either. Death is a part of life. We are born, we die. You are so right, bodies have a shelf life and yes, we can do things to ensure we maxmise our shelf life.

    When my family arrived, it quickly dawned on me they eat WAY too much salt and sugar. They would not take me seriously, until I found on-line a Nigerian professor stating that 40% of adult Nigerians suffer diabetes and hyper tension. The kids tell me salt makes things taste good. I keep saying all you can taste is salt!

    We have now managed to reduce the salt intake……….. we might have to start rationing sugar!

    • I’m very sensitive to salt, myself. It’s hard sometimes because I have no particular sweet tooth, but I love salty. My family trends toward hypertension, so I guess it’s a built-in preference.

  12. Stubborn

    We are all terminal in the end no? 😉 Enjoying the blog.

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