Understanding What Is Meant by the Cause of Death

We often hear or read the phrase “cause of death,” but we don’t necessarily fully understand what is really meant by this trio of words. Inasmuch as death is something we all face, understanding the full meaning of “cause of death” is helpful.

Basic Definition of Cause of Death

The succinct technical definition of cause of death is “an official determination of conditions resulting in a human’s death.” Cause of death is defined as the physiological reason why someone’s life came to an end.

Cause of Death Versus Manner of Death

Cause of death is contrasted with manner of death. Whilst cause of death is defined as the physiological reason why an individual died, the manner of death is a bit different. Manner of death is defined as the circumstances in which a particular death took place. The cause of death is a particular disease, illness, or injury that resulted in a person’s life coming to an end. 

Categories of Manner of Death

Manners of death are categorized into one or another of five categories. These are:

  • Natural
  • Accident
  • Suicide
  • Homicide
  • Undetermined

Data on the Leading Causes of Death in the United States

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention track data on the leading causes of death in the United States. The CDC reports the leading causes of death in the country as follows:

  • Heart disease – 647,457
  • Cancer – 599,108
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries) -169,936
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases – 160,201
  • Stroke – 146,383
  • Alzheimer’s disease – 121,404
  • Diabetes – 83,564
  • Influenza and pneumonia – 55,672
  • Nephritis – 50,633
  • Suicide – 47,173

Accuracy of Documenting Causes of Death

A recent study underscores concerns about the accuracy of determinations and recording causes of death. Physicians were interviewed at length in this study regarding the manner in which causes of death were determined, documented, and recorded. 

A stunning two-thirds of physicians reported that they believed that the system of documentation associated with causes of death was inaccurate. 50 percent of causes of death noted on documents like death certificates are thought to be inaccurate. These inaccuracies are thought to derive from such factors as technical limitations as well as those responsible for reporting causes of death being advised to “put something else” on documentation like a death certificate. 

Death by suicide provides a useful example of how “put something else” on official documents relating to a death, including a death certificate, can occur. A notable amount of shame can be associated with the death of a family member by suicide. Thus, in the reporting process, an individual or individuals involved in that process might direct or pressure the official cause of death to be something different than death by suicide.

The study further revealed that four-fifths of physicians were unaware that they didn’t need to make an absolutely definitive determination of a cause of death on documentation like a death certificate. Indeed, it is lawful in California and all other U.S. states to make determinations about causes of death that are:

  • Probable
  • Presumed
  • Undetermined

When physicians recognize that they legally can utilized these modifiers in reports and documents associated with cause of death, they actually end up producing data that is more reliable and accurate.

Oftentimes, an initial death certificate is issued before lab results are issued. In some cases, new information regarding cause of death is developed or ascertained following the issuance of an initial death certificate. Another alarming bit of evidence revealed as a result of this study is that less than 3 percent of physicians report that they appropriately amend a death certificate when lab results or other new information is developed pertaining to cause of death. 

Although misreporting of suicide was used as an example, that isn’t the most commonly misreported cause of death. Rather, at this juncture in time in the United States, cardiovascular disease is the most frequently inaccurately reported cause of death on death certificates and other official reports. 

Disputes Over Causes of Death

The reporting of causes of death is further undermined in California and across the United States because with some regularity family members dispute the cause of death determination made by an attending physician or medical examiner. This occurs for a whole host of reasons.

In addition, members of the public more broadly can become involved in disputes over causes of death as well. For example, when a celebrity passes away unexpectedly, a cohort of the public at large very may dispute the official cause of death. In such situations, conspiracy theories can arise as to the actual causes of death.

The disputes over cause of death can have a profound impact on the whole system of determining and reporting what was the cause of death. This process adds to what has been identified already as significant uncertainty in regard to data collected and maintained regarding the causes of death in the United States.