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Death Rates Are Dropping


A surprising story, little noticed, is that death rates from many major diseases are gradually declining.  For example, the rate of death from cardiovascular disease– heart problems– has dropped by 50 percent since its peak around 1960.   At that time, about a third of all deaths were due to heart disease.  People are still dying from heart attacks, but the rates of high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, and kidney disease (a consequence of high blood pressure) have all dropped dramatically.

Another disease that is disappearing is stomach cancer.  This used to be the number one cause of cancer mortality, but now it represents only 1.8% of deaths from cancer.  Along with tuberculosis, stomach cancer is a rare diagnosis these days, especially in developed countries.  The rate of tuberculosis started dropping well before antibiotics effective against the causative organism became available.  It seems that economic development has something to do with decreases in death rates from these conditions and many others.  That is not a difficult leap of logic, but some conditions don’t fit well with this point of view.

For example, dementia rates are decreasing too.  Even with the increase in life expectancy, from which we would expect increases in dementia rates due to more people living to an advanced ages, incidence has still dropped.  From 1986-91, the incidence rate for those over sixty was 3.6%, but from 2004-08, it was 2.0%.  There has been a more than 50% decrease in dementia incidence in the last 30 years.  No generally accepted explanation has been offered.

Another condition that is fading is hip fracture, a calamity that often leads to death within a year.  The incidence of hip fracture has gone down 15-20% per decade for the last three decades.  This is unrelated to the use of drugs that ameliorate osteoporosis, the hypothetically main cause of fractures; the use of such drugs is still rare.  Some say that there has been a parallel increase in obesity, which is associated with better bone mass, but this is does not explain the dramatic drop in rates recently.

Most of these disappearing diseases are related to aging, which has had less impact lately; life expectancy has increased gradually as well, but not quite in step with these changes.  It is tempting to say that people are aging less rapidly than they used to.  It is also possible that improvement in general nutrition from childhood has had some effect.  Many improvements in our lives have had additive effects to reduce rates of most common diseases.  The elimination of lead from gasoline, reduced rates of smoking, and other factors have all helped.

Regardless of the cause, we can at least be optimistic that our children will have healthier lives than we did– assuming that society remains intact in the future.  The possibility that catastrophe could reverse all these changes is unpleasant to consider.  All the more reason to fight for better government, better healthcare, and better relations between nations.

The impulse for this post came from an article in the New York Times, from which the statistics mentioned are drawn.

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