We’re all giving our attention to the novel coronavirus, either trying to avoid getting infected or in some cases trying to deny it’s a serious threat (spoiler: it is), but there are all sorts of things out to kill you these days.
In 2018, the leading causes of death (in order) were heart disease, cancer, accident, chronic lower respiratory disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s Disease, diabetes, infectious lower respiratory disease, kidney disease and suicide – note that murder doesn’t make it into the top ten. Although there are no comprehensive figures for 2020 – which still isn’t over yet, and because it takes time to compile data – existing data indicate that the novel coronavirus has moved infectious lower respiratory disease up the list, from eighth to third.
COVID-19 is going to kill a lot more people in the last weeks of 2020. By New Year’s Eve, it could move “lower respiratory disease” up to the number one spot, as recklessly as people have been behaving.
The reason infectious diseases like colds and the flu are more common in cold weather isn’t because cold weather causes “colds” – it’s because people spend more of their time in small enclosed spaces with other people. That’s why the CDC said we’re in for a “dark winter.” They’re right. No one is sure just how dark it will be, but at least that is partly up to us, if we observe the same precautions that have been urged on us for most of 2020, especially masking.
A comorbidity is the simultaneous presence of more than one disease in a single patient. Many people are confused about “comorbidities,” – thinking if a person who catches coronavirus has a condition which weakens their immune system, such as heart disease, cancer, or diabetes, then COVID-19 was not the “real” cause of death. By analogy, if Jane is over sixty and morbidly obese and gets into a fistfight with David and she dies, David’s lawyer won’t get very far raising Jane’s pre-existing conditions at trial.
So, what else can kill a person in the new COVID-19 world?
Other infectious diseases are surprising us with a resurgence. Most notably polio, which we thought we had nearly conquered, afflicted a large number of people, mostly children, in Pakistan, owing to a combination of bad sanitation, war, and the reappearance of a strain of the virus which had been thought to be eradicated, and which the current vaccine was unable to prevent.
In the U.S., heart disease still kills more people than anything else. More than 650,000 people, one in four of all deaths. A large number of men and women of all ethnic groups develop various forms of cardiovascular disease, but it’s especially common among African Americans. Although more men than women have heart attacks, a woman in the middle of one is less likely to receive quick attention because the symptoms are usually less dramatic, and much less widely recognized.
Cancer, for a long time one of the most frightening words in the English language, is still the number two killer. More people survive it than was once the case, but the many related diseased classed together under the name “cancer” still kill 600,000 people every year, almost as many people as heart disease.
Accidental death – everything from plane crashes to stumbling over a discarded shoe and breaking your neck – was the third leading cause of death in 2019, killing 120,000 people.
The picture is quite different in 2020, not because so many people are dying from COVID-19, but because regional lockdowns and general caution about going out has resulted in people doing more of their living at home, and using electronic media to do more of their working, shopping, and socializing than before. Deaths by accident could be permanently reduced if people’s habits change as a result of the pandemic.
“Chronic lower respiratory disease” is ironically a long-winded phrase, and encompasses many illnesses, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, asthma, pulmonary hypertension, and occupational lung diseases caused by exposure to dust and other harmful substances at work. Deaths from CLRD are estimated at about 120,000 per year – one more reason to quit cigarettes, since besides increasing your risk of heart disease and lung cancer, smoking also paralyzes the cilia in your breathing passages which are your first line of defense against noxious airborne substances. The American Lung Association confirms that CLRD will put a person at higher risk of severe complications if they catch COVID.
Recently, people have tried using the term “brain attack” to refer to stroke, since the mechanism of both is very similar. Whatever you call it, a blockage or rupture of a blood vessel in the brain kills about 140,000 Americans per year, as well as crippling hundreds of thousands more.
Alzheimer’s disease has been recognized as being one of the slowest and most miserable ways to die. Before the deterioration of the brain leads to its being unable to control the body’s organs, a person first loses memory and voluntary control. At least 80,000 people die from Alzheimer’s every year, but recent research suggests the correct figure may be many more.
Diabetes kills about 80,000 people each year, especially if they are obese, smokers, or Native American or Inuit. With the quarantine in place, many have fallen into poor eating and exercise habits, which could lead them to a diagnosis of diabetes.
Kidney disease kills about 50,000 Americans every year. It can sneak up on people who are telling themselves they’re in good health, because it often shows no symptoms before kidneys are on the brink of failure.
Sadly, about 50,000 people die each year by suicide. While in theory that should be the most preventable cause of death, no nation and no religion has ever succeeded in eliminating it, though there are variations from one country or culture to another. The Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention have noted an increase in mental health issues corresponding to the pandemic. For the time being, though, suicide, even more than other causes of death, has to be prevented one person at a time.
The Benton County Stats
In 2017, Benton County had the overall lowest rate of deaths in the state. The county was second lowest for heart disease and unintentional injury deaths, third lowest for deaths from CLRD, fifth lowest for cancer deaths, and seventh lowest for death by stroke.
As of mid-November of 2020, Benton County has been holding strong in terms of coronavirus with 22 of the 36 counties in Oregon having fewer cases, and 19 having fewer deaths. Benton County has the 11th highest population in the state.