catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Death watch

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How do you think you will die? As the grimly fascinating Australian Institute of Health and Welfare publication Mortality Over the Twentieth Century in Australia documents, the range of most likely possibilities has changed significantly over time.

In 1907, TB and the runs were the second and third most likely causes of death, now almost gone in one case and usually a nuisance only in the other. Indeed, of the respective top 10 causes in 1907 and 2000 only two are on both lists, both to do with the heart. Cancers make up three of the top ten now, but none back in 1907. And of course changes in when death strikes have been hugely important – now it is mostly the elderly, not the young or middle-aged. When researching family history for the 100th anniversary of my grandfather’s birth a few years back, my mother found a family grave in the Melbourne General Cemetery. Most of the people buried there didn’t live long enough to go to school, a fate waiting for a quarter of kids born in the late 19th century. Luckily (and obviously) my grandfather did live, but his father died when he was still very young. Then as now there were a lot of single parents, but for very different reasons.

Reducing accidental death has been a big cause of declining death rates. If you were a 15-24 year old male in the early to mid-1970s the road was a dangerous place to be – nearly four times as dangerous as it is today. But the worst drivers have generally been very old men, and the best women aged 25-44 – probably not coincidentally, the main childrearing years.

Suicide is always particularly interesting, because it seems to go in and out of fashion. For young men (15-24) it rose in the first quarter of the century, declined again for the next quarter century (with a few minor ups and downs), and then started a long rise from 1965 to 1990, before heading back down again – we are back to about where we were in 1980. For middle-aged men, the trends are less smooth, but there is the reverse overall pattern to young men of the early and late twentieth centuries. The young were roughly twice as likely to commit suicide at the end of the twentieth century than they had been at the start, while the middle-aged were roughly half as likely. Is it harder being young and easier being middle-aged than in the past? Of course suicide even at its peaks is a rare event, but it is tempting to see it (as many have) as the extreme manifestation of what many people must be feeling.

For someone like me interested in well-being research, these figures create new puzzles about the long-term data. It’s difficult to think of anything more likely to cause unhappiness than the premature death of a friend or family member. The huge reduction in early mortality must have avoided a lot of misery. Yet it’s not showing in the statistics, not even in the people classifying themselves in the least happy category. It bolsters my view that there must be signficant changes in well-being that simply aren’t being captured by questions about happiness and life satisfaction.


Written by Admin

April 5, 2006 at 9:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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