The ﬁnal cause of death is usually the failure of the vital centres in the brain that control the beating of the heart and the act of breathing. The important practical question, however, is what disease, injury or other agent has led to this failure. Sometimes the cause may be obvious – for example, pneumonia, coronary thrombosis, or brain damage in a road accident. Often, however, the cause can be uncertain, in which case a POST-MORTEM EXAMINATION is necessary.
The two most common causes of death in the UK are diseases of the circulatory system (including strokes and heart disease) and cancer.
Overall annual death rates among women in the UK at the start of the 21st century were
7.98 per 1,000 population, and among men,
5.58 per 1,000. Comparable ﬁgures at the start of the 20th century were 16.3 for women and
18.4 for men. The death rates in 1900 among infants up to the age of four were 47.9 per 1,000 females and 57 per 1,000 males. By 2003 these numbers had fallen to 5.0 and 5.8 respectively. All these ﬁgures give a crude indication of how the health of Britain’s population has improved in the past century.
Death rates and ﬁgures on the causes of deaths are essential statistics in the study of EPIDEMIOLOGY which, along with information on the incidence of illnesses and injuries, provides a temporal and geographical map of changing health patterns in communities. Such information is valuable in planning preventive health measures (see PUBLIC HEALTH) and in identifying the natural history of diseases – knowledge that often contributes to the development of preventive measures and treatments for those diseases.