Causes of death and perception skewing

My first job out of college was working in one of the busiest Emergency Departments in the country.  I learned a lot of interesting things about human behavior there, and some random facts about the way the ED interacts with the government as far as reporting goes.  

One of the smaller parts of my job was making sure the proper reports got filed at the appropriate times, and this included death certificates.  Contrary to what you might think, not many people actually die in the Emergency Department.  Trauma victims almost always have enough time to get to the operating room before they die, and people with more chronic illnesses tend to die in the intensive care units.  Thus, when death certificates come up, most residents have no idea how to fill them out.  I don’t remember much about them, but I will always remember one thing: heart failure is NOT a valid cause of death in Massachusetts.  You can put unknown, or heart disease or many many other things, but you can’t put heart failure.  The reason?  Everyone dies of heart failure.  If your heart is still beating, you’re not getting a death certificate.  
I’m thinking of all this because of a very cool new interactive graph put out by the New England Journal of Medicine about causes of death over the years.  I can only post the static graph, but I suggest you check out the interactive one:
Another list here, comparing 1900 and 2010 directly:
It’s interesting to see causes that have dropped due to actual dips (tuberculosis) and those that are not there any more due to medical reclassification (senility).
It’s a good study in how medical reporting can change over time for various reasons, and why changes should always viewed from both a broad view as well as up close.

Life goes on, and so does life expectancy

Life expectancy is a funny thing.  It’s a pretty often quoted statistic that not many people realize is just that – a statistic.  It’s also fairly misunderstood, in that many people presume it’s static.

Truthfully, your life expectancy changes over the course of your life based on how long you’ve already lived. Most people accept this as making sense once it’s pointed out, but it’s not often the first thought people have when they here it (and journalist’s are ABYSMAL at clarifying the “at birth” part of most life expectancy estimates).  Anyway, this week posted this chart, which I think illustrates the changes nicely.  I didn’t check all the other data they put on there (though I was surprised to see how low the median age for first divorces is), but I thought the overall affect was quite informative.

In particular, I like the beginning of the chart, where it shows that if you make it beyond your first year, you actually get a bump up pretty quickly.  Infant mortality is not often thought of as affecting overall life expectancy in developed countries, but it does.