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101 Facts About Ageing #3: How Humans Die – Then & Now

Posted on 1 July 2021

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As Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an American sociologist, politician, and diplomat once said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”. And we wholeheartedly agree. A shared set of facts is the first step to building a better world with longevity for all. In that spirit, we are creating a series that covers 101 indisputable facts about ageing, health and longevity.

Over the last 100 years, the ways in which humans die has changed drastically, especially in developed countries. In 1900 USA, over half of all deaths were caused by infectious diseases. By 2010, infectious diseases caused only a small fraction of deaths. Instead, heart disease and cancer were responsible for the majority of deaths, accounting for 65% of all deaths when combined.

Causes of death in the USA in 1900 and 2010.
Image provided by @agingroy

Globally, cardiovascular diseases collectively are the biggest killers, accounting for 17.8 million deaths in 2017. In second place is cancer, which killed 9.3 million, followed by respiratory diseases at 3.9 million and lower respiratory infections at 2.6 million. While age-related disease remain the largest causes of death globally, infectious diseases remain the primary cause of mortality in many developing countries. In Niger, malaria, diarrhoeal diseases and lower respiratory infections were the three leading causes of death in 2017, with cardiovascular diseases and cancer in 5th and 6th place.

The decline in deaths caused by infectious diseases is largely due to medical advancements like the development of antibiotics and more widespread use of vaccines, as well as improved sanitation. Next to this success, comparatively little progress has been made in terms of curing heart disease and cancer, though individuals with these diseases can now expect to survive for longer. Between the periods of 1970-1977 and 2007-2013, the average 5 year survival rate for all cancers in the USA increased by 17%.

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