Death certificate for Queen Elizabeth II: There is a long tradition of old age as a cause of death. In the 19th century, it was a major cause of mortality, along with the nebulous term “found dead”.
Just two unusual words, “old age,” appear under Queen Elizabeth’s cause of death on her just made public death certificate.
In regular conversation, we could bring up people passing away from old age. But in the 21st century, who genuinely passes away from old age, medically speaking?
An ambiguous cause of death not only begs the question of how someone died, but it can also be distressing for the surviving family and loved ones.
The various methods of death
Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, cerebrovascular illnesses (such as stroke), cancer, and COVID are the main killers in England and Wales.
Other noteworthy reasons include pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lower respiratory illnesses (like asthma).
In reality, “old age” and the nebulous term “frailty” are frequently listed as causes of mortality under “symptoms, indications, and ill-defined disorders.”
The top ten causes of death include the latter group. But at the moment, this lags significantly behind COVID and, on average over a five-year period, behind influenza and pneumonia.
A fascinating past
There is a long history of old age as a cause of death. In the 19th century, it was a major cause of mortality, along with the nebulous term “found dead”.
The Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1836 marked the transition from clerical to secular death registration in the middle of the 19th century (UK).
Then came the seminal work by French statistician and demographer Jacques Bertillon, The Bertillon Classification of Causes of Death.
Ian Hacking, a philosopher from Canada, stated that it was “illegal, for example, to die of old age” if you died of something that wasn’t on the official list.
This may be a little over the top. No doubt, it was permissible to pass away from old age by the turn of the 20th century.
This shows that giving a precise cause of death is crucial because it’s a useful tool for observing mortality patterns at various levels of the population.
The term “old age” eventually began to be used as a last option to indicate a fatality with no known cause. If a person passed away from a multitude of issues, but conducting an autopsy to determine the exact cause wasn’t feasible or moral, it became valuable in certain cases.
Eventually, the term “old age” was used as a last resort to explain fatalities with no recognised cause. When it was impractical or unethical to do an autopsy in order to determine the precise underlying cause of death, it became useful in cases when a person may have passed away as a result of a multitude of problems.
There’s no closure
The other reason why “old age” has been seldom used as the cause of death in the 20th and 21st centuries was that it doesn’t provide any closure to families of the deceased.
Research shows families want information about how their loved one died, not only because it can be useful for managing their own health concerns, but also because it provides a resolution to their loved one’s death.
A good death
We may decide that asking for more information about how the queen died at the age of 96 is just macabre titillation. We may decide the royal family deserves privacy surrounding intimate details of the queen’s death.
However, a specific cause of death of someone who lived a privileged life and who died at an old age, for instance, can tell us much about how to lead a healthy life and plan for a good death.