How have causes of death changed in 100 years?

September 27, 2017   //   No Comments

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) recently reported on the change to the causes of deaths since 1915.  People are living longer than they did 100 years ago because of advances in medical science as well as better sanitation, nutrition and hygiene.  Just over a century ago the average life expectancy at birth for a man was 48.4 years, whereas women could expect to live to 54.0.  Fast forward from 1915 to 2015 and a man’s life span extended by 31 years and almost 29 years for a woman (79.3 and 82.9 respectively).

In 1915, people were dying in large numbers from infections, but by 2015, the most common causes of death were related to cancer, heart conditions or external causes.  There was a dramatic decline in the number of people dying from infectious diseases in the 20th century. Poliomyelitis (polio), diptheria, tetanus, whooping cough, measles, mumps and rubella were all virtually wiped out during the second half of the 20th century, after childhood immunisation was introduced. Motor vehicle incidents began to emerge as a leading cause of death in young males and females in 1945. The number of road deaths of young people may be attributable to the existence of the Blackout during World War II, when vehicles drove in total darkness. This trend continued until 1985, where the percentage of deaths to motor vehicle accidents began decreasing, perhaps due to the introduction of compulsory seat belts in 1983.

From 1985 onwards, external causes such as drug misuse, suicide and self-harm were the leading cause of death for young people, particularly affecting men more than women. Meanwhile heart conditions dominated as the leading cause of death for middle-to older-aged males from 1945 onwards. A similar trend was seen in females during this period, but at older ages; while younger to middle-aged females more frequently died of breast cancer.

Not only have the causes of death changed over time, but so have the number of people dying. The number of deaths in England and Wales has decreased in the past century, whereas there has been an increase in the population; particularly the number of elderly people.  In 1915, there were 562,253 deaths in England and Wales, compared with 529,655 deaths in 2015, a decrease of 5.8%.

Read the full report on the ONS website here.