What is the leading cause of death in the United States? Heart disease? Cancer? No, it’s smoking. Smoking? Yes, depending on how you ask the question.
In the early 90s, McGinnis and Foege turned the age-old question of what people die of on its head by asking not what diseases people die of but rather what the causes of these are. Instead of chalking up the death of an older man to say lung cancer, they sought to understand the proximate cause of death, which in the case of lung cancer is largely smoking. Using published data, the researchers performed a simple but profound calculation — they multiplied the mortality rates of leading diseases by the cause-attributable fraction, that proportion of a disease that can be attributed to a particular cause (for example, in lung cancer 90 percent of deaths in men and 80 percent of deaths in women are attributable to smoking). Published in JAMA in 1993, their landmark study became a call to action for the public health community.
When looked at the conventional way, using data from the 2004 update of the original study, heart disease, cancer, and stroke are the leading causes of death, respectively. This accounting may help us understand the nation’s burden of illness, but does little to tell us how to prevent these diseases and improve health. Through the lens of McGinnis and Foege we get the actual causes of death (e.g., the major external modifiable factors that contribute to death). This analysis shows that the number one cause of death in America is tobacco use, followed closely by poor diet and lack of physical activity, and then alcohol consumption. Read more »
*This blog post was originally published at BeyondApples.Org*
It is an article of faith that, in Barbara Starfield’s words, adults whose regular source of care is a primary care physician rather than a specialist have lower mortality, even after accounting for differences in income, and she draws upon studies at both the county and state levels to prove it. Now a new paper in JAMA about England’s Primary Care Trusts refocuses the discussion on poverty.
While Starfield’s county-level studies are often cited as evidence that more primary care physicians and fewer specialists lead to lower mortality, they actually showed virtually no differences at all. And when repeated by Ricketts, the small differences noted were not consistent throughout various regions of the U.S. On the other hand, “counties with high income-inequality experienced much higher mortality.” So, in reality, the county studies demonstrated the strong impact of poverty and the marginal impact (if any) of primary care. Read more »
*This blog post was originally published at PHYSICIANS and HEALTH CARE REFORM Commentaries and Controversies*
The Washington Post asks whether “old age” should be reconsidered as a legitimate cause of death for the elderly. Because more people are dying at very advanced ages with multiple system failure, it’s often harder for physicians to pinpoint the specific underlying cause, but using “old age” as a catch-all term could make mortality data less meaningful, the article said.
An upcoming revision of the International Classification of Diseases might provide some guidance: “Each revision of the ICD is the right moment to reconsider this question,” the co-head of the ICD’s mortality statistics committee told the Post. (Washington Post)
*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*