We’re all aging but here’s what “dying of old age” really means
If we don't die as a result of aging, then what is aging? (Full article by Erin Brodwin originally published in Business Insider, June 28, 2016.)
Ever ask someone how their family member passed away and hear them say they simply "died of old age"?
As it turns out, that's almost never quite what's going on from a medical perspective. Aging — in and of itself — is not a cause of death. (There is a phenomenon known as "geriatric failure to thrive," which scientists are studying, but it's extremely rare.)
When most of us say that someone died of old age, what we really mean is that someone died as a result of an illness (like pneumonia) or as a result of an event (like a heart attack) that a healthy, stronger person would likely have survived.
These are often quiet deaths, like what happens when an older person's "heart just stops in their sleep." This usually means that the person had a heart attack in the middle of the night. Another example is if someone "had a bad fall, and it was just downhill from there." The person likely broke a hip, survived surgery, but then got pneumonia in the hospital and died from the infection.
Most often, what claims the lives of older people is actually an accumulation of things.
"As you get older and older, you're more likely to get heart disease and cancer," Amy Ehrlich, a professor of clinical medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a geriatric physician at Montefiore Medical Center, told Business Insider last year. "But we also see a lot of things like falls, where someone falls and ends up with serious trauma like a hip fracture. That's hard to recover from when you're 104."
If we don't die as a result of aging, then what the heck is aging?
Humans didn't always live long enough to age. We used to die long before our skin began to sag or our muscles began to wither, succumbing instead to diseases for which we now have vaccines, like tuberculosis or smallpox, or we died from gastrointestinal infections, which can cause diarrhea.
Somewhere around the 1950s (at least in America and other wealthy countries), we started living nearly twice as long as our ancestors had just a century before. We now spend a massive portion (nearly half!) of our lives getting old before we die.
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