Monday, December 22, 2008

What's Gonna Get You?

How have the leading causes of death in the United States changed since World War I? By compiling values recorded by the Center for Disease Control, I have created graphs of these causes in 1918, 1958, and 1998 for comparison. The first observation I would like to point out is the large percentage of Pneumonia and Influenza deaths in 1918. It was the number one cause of death that year (33% of deaths) and many of the surrounding years as well, yet by 1958 we can see it had declined to a measly sixth cause of death (4% of deaths). It was again sixth in 1998 (3% of deaths). In 1918 nearly four times as many people died from Pneumonia and Influenza than the number 2 leading cause of death, heart disease, so falling from 1st to 6th is a large drop. Why this large defenestration? One solid explanation is the development of antibiotics and vaccines. In 1918 there was a large influenza pandemic and in the 1940's the U.S. military developed the first approved vaccine for influenza, which explains the 1958 ranking. The development of antibiotics did not mature until the 1940's, which explains why Tuberculosis fell from 3rd place to off the charts in 1958, 1998, and hopefully for good in the United States.
Another rather drastic change is the rise of Cancer as a leading cause in death in the United States. In 1918 it was the number six leading cause of death (4% of deaths) yet by 1958 it became the number 2 cause of death (15% of deaths) and remained number 2 in 1998 (23% of deaths). This is due to a combination of two basic factors. The first is probably the most recognized today, and that is the rise in use of machines, materials and foods that give off a significant amount of radiation; this is, however, not an object of real concern because the amount of radiation released is often insignificant and of no real danger. The more likely culprit is the increase in lifespan of individuals living in the United States. Cancer is an old age disease. The reason cancer "didn't exist" hundreds of years ago is that it actually did exist, only nobody lived quite long enough for enough genetic mutations to manifest themselves. As life expectancy went up after 1918, so did incidence of cancer.
The last most apparent observation I would like to point out is the apparent rise and dominance of Heart Disease as the leading cause of death in the United States after 1918. Similar to cancer you could argue a larger presence of heart-weakening factors increases Heart Disease risk, however a more valid explanation may lie in the lessening of risk of the other methods of mortality. As risk of infectious disease goes down, other causes seem to go up, only because they are simply what remains.

The values on the graphs were created based on information compiled by the Center for Disease Control, which may be found on the following online pdf (last checked 11/20/2008):
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