Graham King

Solvitas perambulum

What really kills people like you ?

Update 2018: The excellent Our World In Data has a Causes Of Death section.

Do you remember how we were all going to die of Ebola, then S.A.R.S., and more recently Avian flu ?

Have you got the memo that the job creation program at airports is because Terrorism is such a big threat to your life ? In England at the moment you are, according to the media, at great threat from drug dealing teenagers, and anyone younger than you in general.

And yet, here you are, reading safely. So instead of tolerating idiots pretending to be journalists, I went looking for what we should really be wary of – what really does kill people.

Rational Fear

Many countries keep very good records for mortality statistics. There is an international standard, known as ICD-10, for recording causes of death. Records are submitted yearly to the World Health Organisation, which makes them available to the public.

I downloaded them, applied a bit of Python / MySQL / Django magic, and produced a searchable database of causes of death, called Rational Fear (now defunct). This allows you to search causes of death by country, sex, and age group. Try it, it’s quite instructive.

The Western world – killing yourself

The first thing you remember, because you already really know all of this, is that the older you get the more you are at risk. In Western countries you’re quite safe into your fifties and sixties, after which chances of death pick up significantly. People in their late seventies, eighties and nineties die of heart attacks, cancer, and pneumonia.

As you work down through the years, you stop being at risk of dying. In the U.S.A, Japan, and all of Western Europe, no male age group under 80 lost more than 1% of it’s numbers for any recent year. For women, you have to go above 85, above 90 in many countries, to get more than 1% loss in any one year.

What’s even more interesting, is that the very small number that did die, largely killed themselves, in a manner of speaking. Let’s work backwards through the ages, seeing where the real risk lies.

The biggest killer of 60 year old men in the U.S.A, Japan, Austria, Denmark, and many other developed countries is lung cancer. Wikipedia has a great graphic on the link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer.

Skip down to 40 – heart attacks and lung cancer are still high, but the biggest killers aren’t those that make the papers:

  • Alcoholism is the biggest killers of 40 year old men in Germany, Finland and Hungary.
  • Suicide is the biggest killer of 40 year old men in Canada, Denmark, Sweden and Japan.
  • Cars are the biggest killer of 40 year old men in Portugal, and the second biggest in France.

The biggest killer of women at 40 in the U.S.A., England, Japan, France, Spain, Poland, all over, is breast cancer. The second biggest killer of women tends to be the same as the men.

Suicide, Alcohol, and road traffic accidents continue to take Western men and women down through their 30s and 20s.

In teenage years alcohol drops away, leaving road traffic accidents and suicide as pretty much the only causes of death amongst Western teenagers of both sexes. Below teenage years, children die so rarely that the figures start to be meaningless.

Once we get all the way back to babies, the danger increases sharply under 1 year old. About 10 to 20 times more babies die before their first birthday than between their 1st and 2nd birthday. The causes of death amongst Western babies are varied and often unknown. The first or second recorded cause of death in most countries is Sudden infant death syndrome, also known as ‘cot death’ or ‘crib death’.

The rest of the world – killing each other

Outside of the ‘Western’ world, many less rich countries run an effective health service, and report mortality statistics to the World Health Organisation. Aside from the presence of ‘Unattended death’ in the records, because many die away from medical attention, the main causes of death are similar. For example, Peruvian women in their 80’s die of pneumonia, heart attacks, and cancers. Belarusian men in their 80’s die of heart attacks.

The differences start to appear at the ages when you really shouldn’t be dying. At 40, heart attacks and cancers (lots of lung cancer) are still high, like in the richer countries. Alcoholism and suicide are big threats in Eastern Europe, but road traffic accidents drop off somewhat. The noticeable additions, which are almost absent in richer countries, are murder and H.I.V.

Being shot is the biggest cause of death of men aged 40 to 44 in Ecuador and Colombia. H.I.V. is the biggest killer of both sexes in their 40’s in Thailand.

As you go down through the years, murder and H.I.V. rapidly become almost the only causes of death in non-Western countries. The main cause of death for men of all age groups between 15 and 40 in Brazil is a gunshot wound inflicted by a third-party. In Argentina H.I.V. overtakes murder when men reach 30, as it does in Haiti at 35.

Prior to entering what seems to be the sex and gun years around 15 or 20, children in less rich countries die in such small numbers that it ceases to be meaningful. Drowning comes up in Cuba, and road traffic accidents in Chile and Peru, but in very small numbers.

Dangerous drugs ?

The only illegal drug that features in mortality statistics is Heroin. For men in Scotland between 20 and 35 it is the most important cause of death (after 35 suicide takes over). In most other countries is features in the 20 – 35 age group, because they have few other causes of death, but even then usually below several varieties of suicide (each method of suicide has it’s own code), and several types of road traffic accident.

The drug that does kill people is, of course, alcohol.

Staying alive

If you’re reading this, you are probably over 1 year old and under 80. Relax. You’re very unlikely to die.