We Die Many Deaths

Causes of Death

Causes of human deaths have been classified and recorded since the end of the 19th Century. In 1948, the effort was taken on by the newly created World Health Organization as the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD). In the current version of the classification, ICD-10, there are 20 major classes of causes of death, called Chapters. Within the Chapters, there are 6,121 more specific causes of death. Each primary cause of death can have up to twenty contributing causes of death (in the database, that is, life may be more complicated). We die in many ways.

In the U.S., the Center for Disease Control manages the implementation of the ICD. From 1999 to 2019 (before Covid-19), 53,422,612 individuals died in the United States, represented in the graphic. That’s about 2,671,131 per year, more than the current population of New Mexico. more than the populations of Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota combined.

The most common causes of death in the U.S. from 1999 to 2019 were diseases of the circulatory system (heart disease and stroke), accounting for 33% of all deaths, and neoplasms (cancers), accounting for 23% of all deaths. Each of these categories account for more than one death per minute.

The next most common causes—COPD,Alzheimer’s, and dementia—each account for about 3% of deaths. Since Covid-19, the flu and pneumonia category will also account for about 3% of deaths. After that, septicemia and Parkinson disease account for 1% of all deaths.

For comparison, Ebola, selenium deficiency, pathological gambling, anal spasms, second-degree sunburn, nervousness, and over 700 other causes have each accounted for only one death in the U.S. in twenty years.

Gun-related deaths accounted for about 1.2% of all deaths, of which about 60% were attributable to suicide, 37% to assaults, and 2% to accidents. Less than 0.1% of gun-related deaths occurred in a mass shooting, about the same as dying in a lightning strike or a cave-in.

Four of the best known contributing causes of death in the ICD database are obesity and usage of tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drugs. By far, alcohol is the worst, at least as represented in the database. There are so many codes, however, that some patterns of causes might be obscured. Patterns also change over time, such as with the opioid crisis.

Some causes of death are not natural. They may be the result of accidents, suicides, or homicides, or all three. For example, alcohol and drug-related causes are usually unintentional. Gun-related deaths are usually intentional.

The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.

Josef Stalin, 1943

Society’s reactions to the various causes of death is thought-provoking. People are aghast when hundreds die in a sudden, unexpected natural disaster, transportation accident, illegal activity, or health crisis. But deaths attributable to familiar risks, like cancer and heart disease, rarely make the news even though they account for over a million deaths every year. We barely notice 2,000 deaths every day from heart disease but 10 deaths from a mass shooting make us gasp and demand legislative action. Why do we react so strongly to some deaths and ignore others?

The U.S. spends more than half of its three-trillion-dollar discretionary Federal budget on defense and counter-terrorism yet war and terrorism account for only 0.00006% of deaths. Is the spending wasteful or exceptionally effective? The US spends over $100 billion annually on controlling illegal drugs, yet drug-related deaths account for less than 0.1% of all deaths.

But funding isn’t a good indicator of how people feel about death. Politics is too corrupt and unreliable a filter. Neither is media attention. What makes a death newsworthy?

  • Magnitude. The number of people who died, and sometimes, the number of people who might die because of an event, is a primary factor in national news coverage. Chernobyl and Bhopal are examples.
  • Victims. Deaths of celebrities and high-status individuals are reported nationally most of the time. Local victims are sometimes reported, especially vulnerable victims like children, the elderly, and the handicapped.
  • Manner of death. Unusual deaths garner more news interest, for example, deaths involving exotic weapons and unseen agents like radiation and poison. Deaths that are somehow shocking, such as those that are sudden and unexpected, especially if preventable, are more newsworthy.
  • Relatability. Deaths in malls, churches, schools, theatres, sporting events, concerts, and public places that make the viewer wonder if it-could-have-been-them are newsworthy.

The media believes that these are the deaths you should know about … but there are more, many more. And that’s just one of the many mysteries of death

Nature—from its mightiest planetary forces to the tiniest of its microbial inhabitants—does more to control our lives and deaths than anything humans do to each other or to ourselves.

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