NEW Deep Six Podcast

December 9, 2008 5:18:01 AM PST
We have taken this podcast on the road again - this time to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. It is one of the busiest hospitals in the region.Title: "Deep Six: Top 15 Causes of Death"

Our topic for conversation is the top causes of death - not to be morbid, but to gain a better understanding of what threats we face as humans.

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If I had to ask you what you thought the top causes of death are, what would you say? We hear a lot about AIDS, and breast cancer, and this super-bug called MRSA, and what about car accidents, or work-related accidents. What about getting bitten by a snake? Or meteors? Or lightning? Or looking into the sun for too long?

What you will discover is that the top 15 causes of death in the United States are, in some ways, not reflective of the dangers that we seem most concerned about. For instance, after 9-11, remember when a bunch of people - including some top political leaders of this country - received anthrax powder in the mail? It spread panic across our country, because just about everyone gets mail, so who could be next? Maybe me?

In reality, the anthrax mailings killed only five people. Five. In a nation of 300 million people, the odds were so miniscule that you would be killed by an anthrax-tainted letter in your mailbox. But we were fearful, nonetheless.

How about MRSA - the bacterial infection that is resistant to some antibiotics. Seems pretty scary, doesn't it? Even a doctor cannot cure you of MRSA, is what some of us thought, even though the infection is treatable by lesser-known antibiotics. In the fall of 2007, the Centers for Disease Control released its findings in a study on MRSA, with this headline:

"MRSA kills more people in the US than AIDS."

MRSA is deadlier than the horrifying condition known as AIDS? That was astounding. But here is the problem: AIDS is not even in the top 15 when it comes to the top causes of death. So for MRSA to leapfrog over AIDS, sure that is somewhat of a milestone for the infection, but hardly something that should spread fear and loathing across the country. Plus, the CDC said the MRSA deaths were primarily due to hospital-acquired staph infections. That narrows it down even further: if you don't visit hospitals that often, you are at an even lower risk of MRSA.

I'm not trying to diminish these illnesses - I'm trying to put them into perspective. And to do that, you must know what the top 15 causes of death are for the United States.

This list I'm going to give you is from the CDC for the year 2005. Just to create some suspense, here is the list from 15 to 1.

Number 15: Homicide. Maybe you would have thought this was lower, maybe not. Homicide was the cause of death for more than 18 thousand people in that year.

Number 14: Parkinson's disease, which impairs your central nervous system. Michael J. Fox is one of the more well-known sufferers of that disease.

Number 13: Hypertension, or high blood pressure.

Number 12: Liver disease, which by the way killed 27,500 people in 2005.

Number 11: Suicide. Yes, causing self-harm that leads to death is way higher than being killed by another person. In 2005, 32,600 people ended their own lives.

Number 10: Sepsis, or blood poisoning - basically what happens when organs in your body shut down, causing it to function abnormally and, causing it to poison itself.

Number 9: Kidney disease

Number 8: Influenza and pneumonia. 63,000 people died in the United States in 2005 from these conditions. This is the reason why you hear doctors advise people, particularly the elderly and children, to get a flu shot to prevent this.

Number 7: Alzheimer's disease

Number 6: Diabetes. Now those are two conditions you hear about quite frequently in the news, and for good reason.

Number 5: Accidents. This covers a wide range of things, including car accidents, work-related mishaps, slips and falls. 117,000 people died from unintentional incidents in 2005.

Number 4: Lower respiratory diseases. This could include illnesses like the common cold, and more serious ones like bacterial pneumonia.

And now, the three leading causes of death in people in the United States in 2005, the last year statistics are available:

Number 3: Cerebrovascular diseases, which primarily involves strokes

Number 2: Cancer. You probably figured this would be relatively high, given how much time and energy we place on figuring out its causes, and raising money for awareness and prevention. Cancer killed 559,000 people in the US in 2005, or 22 percent of all deaths recorded that year. An astounding figure, which gives our cancer-fighting efforts a lot of credibility - and in fact, should make us want to do more.

And now, the number one cause of death for 2005. What have we left out? What could it be?

The number one cause that year, as it has been just about every year, is heart disease. With 652,000 deaths in that year, those that died in America had a 26 percent chance, or more than 1 in 5 chance, of having died from heart disease.

Perhaps learning these figures will open your eyes to the real dangers of our world, perhaps you are already informed. What it comes down to is this:

When boarding a flight, you have much less to worry about when it comes to landing safely, and much more to worry about when it comes to what is on the airline's dinner menu (think artery-clogging cholesterol).

That is, if the airline is even serving meals anymore. I'm Matt O'Donnell, and that's your Deep Six.

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