Sunday, February 04, 2007

"Leading Cause of Death" or, statistics

Heart disease is the 'leading cause of death' among women in this country. This is the month dedicated to "awareness", but what does "awareness" really mean? And what does "leading cause of death" really mean?

In any population, there are going to be several main causes of death. That is, you could pick maybe 10 "causes" that accounted for almost all of the deaths in that population. Something is always the leading cause of death. Throughout human history, the leading causes of death have remained fairly constant until the last century or so... you know, when everything changed. Until then, the leading causes of death for women were (first) infectious diseases like pneumonia, influenza, tuberculosis, and syphilis and (second) childbirth, although there is some overlap because one of the main 'ways' to die from childbirth was to contract a deadly infection from bad birthing hygiene.

"Leading cause of death" for children has changed dramatically, as well, thank God. According to one website, the leading causes of death for children in 1900 were "pneumonia and influenza, tuberculosis, and enteritis with diarrhea", and children under 5 accounted for 40% of those deaths.

So in 1900, if you were lucky enough to live through childhood without contracting a disease that would today be considered either extinct or curable; and you didn't contract one of those same diseases as an adult; and you were blessedly able to deliver your children into this world without dying in the process.... then you might worry about a 'later-adulthood' disease like heart disease.

That's the story for this country a hundred years ago, but life is still like that in countries right now. According to the World Health Organization, the world-wide leading cause of death is HIV/AIDS. Second: lower respiratory infections (as in pneumonia, bronchitis, tuberculosis...) Third: Diarrhea. Really. "Childhood Diseases" is still number six on the world's chart. All over the world, things like diarrhea and pneumonia are still leading causes of death, killing not the elderly but babies, children, young adults...

I guess what I'm trying to say is that as a country, we're damned lucky to claim heart disease as the "number-one-killer-of-women". It means that it's not childbirth. Not violence by men, by war, or by genocide. It's a disease that tends to strike later in life, and it indicates that as a population we're living long enough and healthy enough to get there.

I don't mean to say that "awareness" is not important. We should know what the top "killers" are, especially as the media tends to pick favorites (breast cancer, traffic fatalities) and publicize them. I'm not sure but I would guess that the average 40-something woman has been tested for breast cancer but maybe not for heart disease, and that's not right. We should definitely stop viewing heart disease as a men's problem when statistically it is killing more women. And of course we should make every attempt to eradicate heart disease, as we have with so many other things... polio, TB, syphilis.

But... we should not treat heart disease as some kind of "epidemic" that's "killing more people than ever before." Heart disease is not necessarily getting worse, or if it is, it is most likely due to lifestyle issues; our sedentary, overweight population is straining their hearts like never before. It's that we're dying so much less from everything else.


Benjamin said...

You have such a bright outlook on life.

Bex said...

Heart disease is easy to fix/prevent because it's not your typical disease, most (I do mean most) of the time it can be reversed or prevented by decrease or ceased consumption of animal products (even salmon has cholesterol).
Sorry, I've been reading too much lately. BTW Mara if you think of it and are looking for a book "Mad Cowboy" is a good and quick read and gets you thinking.

Mara said...

Should have known that my resident vegan would have something to add to that! Heheh.