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The Importance of Knowing Exactly Why We Die

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media, September 22, 2010

I wonder how many people in 1992 died from an overdose of propofol, the drug implicated in Michael Jackson's death.

There are new ways people die from or in motor vehicle accidents and there are new types of vehicles they can be killed in, such as the Segway.

Cancers are increasingly complex, and their subcategories much more voluminous. And people who die of diabetes, in many instances, have many contributing conditions that should be reflected.

And there are emerging infectious diseases, such as SARS, or other avian influenzas. "Right now, we have no way to code for those," Anderson says. When H1N1, or swine flu, emerged, "we had no specific code for it in order to track it. A code had been developed for avian flu a year or so earlier. So they just dumped H1N1 in with the avian influenzas." Or influenzas specified as originating in animals.

"A well-thought out revision of the flu codes is needed."

Other acceptable codes for cause of death now exist, but don't really explain much. They don't tell statisticians or epidemiologists why people die, Anderson continues. For example, there are codes for malaise and fatigue, and for shock and hemorrhage and edema. "These aren't very informative."

But as much as the smart people whose job it is to think about such things are trying to further delineate specific reasons for death, some are suggesting that for the very, very old, people over age 100, why bother?

An article in the Washington Post last week quoted several mortality cause experts saying that more and more people are living healthy lives well past the century mark, with no apparent sign of disease.

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