Good ways and bad ways to talk about “preventing” death

New report out from the CDC:

In 2010, the top five causes of death in the United States were 1) diseases of the heart, 2) cancer, 3) chronic lower respiratory diseases, 4) cerebrovascular diseases (stroke), and 5) unintentional injuries (1). The rates of death from each cause vary greatly across the 50 states and the District of Columbia (2). An understanding of state differences in death rates for the leading causes might help state health officials establish disease prevention goals, priorities, and strategies. States with lower death rates can be used as benchmarks for setting achievable goals and calculating the number of deaths that might be prevented in states with higher rates. To determine the number of premature annual deaths for the five leading causes of death that potentially could be prevented (“potentially preventable deaths”), CDC analyzed National Vital Statistics System mortality data from 2008–2010. The number of annual potentially preventable deaths per state before age 80 years was determined by comparing the number of expected deaths (based on average death rates for the three states with the lowest rates for each cause) with the number of observed deaths. The results of this analysis indicate that, when considered separately, 91,757 deaths from diseases of the heart, 84,443 from cancer, 28,831 from chronic lower respiratory diseases, 16,973 from cerebrovascular diseases (stroke), and 36,836 from unintentional injuries potentially could be prevented each year. In addition, states in the Southeast had the highest number of potentially preventable deaths for each of the five leading causes. The findings provide disease-specific targets that states can use to measure their progress in preventing the leading causes of deaths in their populations.

On the one hand, I love reports like this. I think that reminding people what’s really going to kill them (heart disease!) is important. We do a terrible job about focusing on real risks versus perceived risks. I even did a Healthcare Triage video on that (watch below). So recognizing what really kills us, and then focusing efforts on that, will likely increase people’s lifespan and improve their quality of life.

That said, we’re not really “preventing” death. We’re all going to die of something. We may put off death for a few years, but eventually, the mortality rates will get back to normal. It’s not like focusing on these things will forever reduce the number of people who die each year.

I think we could do a better job of reminding people of that. Too often, people think that preventing death should be the goal of the health care system. There are many other metrics that matter.



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