Diversification in causes of death in low-mortality countries: emerging patterns and implications
BMJ Global Health (2020), forthcoming
Introduction: An important role of public health organizations is to monitor indicators of variation, so as to disclose underlying inequality in health improvement. In industrialized societies, more individuals than ever are reaching older ages and have become more homogeneous in their age at death. This has led to a decrease in lifespan variation, with substantial implications for the reduction of health inequalities. We focus on a new form of variation to shed further light on our understanding of population health and aging: variation in causes of death.
Methods: Data from the WHO Mortality Database and the Human Mortality Database are used to estimate cause-of-death distributions and life tables in 15 low-mortality countries. Cause-of-death variation, using 19 groups of causes, is quantified using entropy measures and analyzed from 1994 to 2017.
Results: The last two decades have seen increasing diversity in causes of death in low-mortality countries. There have been important reductions in the share of deaths from diseases of the circulatory system, while the share of a range of other causes, such as diseases of the genitourinary system, mental and behavioral disorders, and diseases of the nervous system, has been increasing, leading to a more complex cause-of-death distribution.
Conclusions: The diversification in causes of death witnessed in recent decades is most likely a result of the increase in life expectancy, together with better diagnoses and awareness of certain diseases. Such emerging patterns bring additional challenges to health care systems, such as the need to research, monitor, and treat a wider range of diseases. It also raises new questions concerning the distribution of health resources.
Keywords: age at death, age distribution, causes of death, inequality, multiple causes of death