Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Causes of Death

Governments can pursue many different priorities to help improve the life prospects of their compatriots.

In order to ensure our priorities are in fact sound, we must have an accurate sense of the "big picture" of the challenges facing us.

What are the biggest problems we face? And which of those problems are things we could actually do something about?

It is often hard for us to grasp the big picture because, as individuals, we have a very limited perception of the challenges facing society as a whole. Our perceptions are often shaped by the experiences of our own lives. For example, if one is robbed or their home is flooded, then these personal experiences may influence one's perception of what they believe society's biggest problems are (e.g. crime and flooding).

We can overcome these biases by relying on credible empirical findings rather than appeals to our individual life experiences.

I assume we can all agree that the death of our compatriots ought to figure prominently in our deliberations about society's priorities. Of the various things we should try to do, preventing people from dying is among the top of that list. So what causes most of our compatriots to die?

If you travel over to the Centre for Disease Control website you can find out what caused the death of Americans in the year 2003.

Half of all deaths were caused by cancer and heart disease. But this is not the whole story. To really see what is at play here we need to consider the role *age* plays in this story.

So let's consider the deaths of people between the ages of 20-40. What are the leading causes of death for Americans in this age category? Well, disease doesn’t even figure in the top three causes. First there are accidents, which account for 30% of the deaths in this category. Second is suicide, at 12%. And third is homicide at 11%. Cancer doesn’t come in till number 4, and it accounts for only 9% of deaths, and heart disease 8%. So suicide kills more people in this category than cancer or heart disease! And accidents kill more than those two diseases combined!

These statistics reveal the importance of age. Given that accidents kill more young people than cancer and heart disease combined, and yet these two diseases account for half of all deaths, it is thus obvious who is most likely to die- the aged.

Of course we all know this, though we might not want to admit it. Just pick up your local newspaper and flip through the obituaries. The vast majority of these deaths will be among people who are over the age of 65.

The fact that aging kills so many of our compatriots should trouble us. And it ought to mean that tackling aging should figure prominently in our priorities. Of course this leads to the second point I mentioned above- what problems can we actually do something about. I assume most people are not sceptical that scientific advances could lead to new treatments, even cures, for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, AD, etc. And yet if you ask these same people if they believe longevity science could lead to anti-aging interventions they will scoff. But such scepticism is not based upon an assessment of the scientific merits of such interventions. Longevity scientists had made incredible advances in the past decade, and it has been demonstrated that aging is not immutable. Indeed, later this week I plan on posting a few thoughts on this excellent book, which I read last week.

So to conclude. If one believes that the death of our compatriots is a serious concern then one also ought to believe that aging is a big problem. For aging is implicated in the major causes of death. Of course death does not exhaust the range of disadvantages aging visits upon us (it also causes frailty, infertility, impotence, blindness and many other things), but the role aging plays in death alone ought to be sufficient grounds for launching a serious effort to retard human aging.