How We Die PART I


How likely are we to die as infants? as teenagers? in our twenties, thirties, forties and fifties? in old age? What's most likely to kill us at each of these times of our lives? accidents? suicide? cancer? How, ultimately, do we die?

Most of what we know about death is anecdotal: a friend dies of cancer at a cruelly early age; an elderly relative with Alzheimer's is in slow decline.

The Internet only adds confusion: the news media is fleetingly obsessed with teenage suicide; social media is suddenly awash with diabetes awareness.

Of course, there are statistics: table after table of death rates published by the government, broken down by age, gender, race… but it's difficult to make sense of all those numbers.

This visualization aims to give a better sense of how we die. It shows up to 1000 people, from newborns to centenarians: people are born on the left, and move to the right as they grow older. When someone dies, a symbol appears to show the cause of death: a heart disease, a brain disease, suicide, homicide or cancer.

As you'll see from the left side of the visualization, most people survive to the age of 50: very few of us die in childhood; accidents, suicides and (these being US statistics) homicides start to creep in as we reach adulthood; tragically, despite significant reductions in infant mortality over the years, neonatal and congenital conditions still claim a few of us before we reach our first year.

This picture changes dramatically on the right side of the visualization. Slowly, the two biggest killers – heart disease and cancer – begin to claim us. Few of us remain on the far right edge, at age 100, where the diseases of old age – strokes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's – take their toll.

This first of two visualizations of how we die emphasizes the element of chance. No matter how long you look, you'll never see the same visualization: sometimes you'll see an unusually high rate of infant mortality; other times you'll see more suicides and homicides. Keep an eye out for the second visualization, coming soon, which will focus on which causes of death are most lethal as you go through your life.



heart diseases

Diseases of heart (I00-I09,I11,I13,I20-I51)


Malignant neoplasms (C00-C97)

In situ neoplasms, benign neoplasms and neoplasms of uncertain or unknown behavior (D00-D48)

brain diseases

Cerebrovascular diseases (I60-I69)

Alzheimer's disease (G30)

Parkinson's disease (G20-G21)


Chronic lower respiratory diseases (J40-J47)

Pneumonitis due to solids and liquids (J69)

Atelectasis (P28.0-P28.1)


Accidents (unintentional injuries) (V01-X59,Y85-Y86)


Influenza and pneumonia (J09-J18)

Septicemia (A40-A41)

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) disease (B20-B24)

Viral hepatitis (B15-B19)


Diabetes mellitus (E10-E14)

kidney diseases

Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis (N00-N07,N17-N19,N25-N27)

liver diseases

Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis (K70,K73-K74)

high blood pressure

Essential hypertension and hypertensive renal disease (I10,I12,I15)


Intentional self-harm (suicide) (*U03,X60-X84,Y87.0)


Assault (homicide) (*U01-*U02,X85-Y09,Y87.1)


Legal intervention (Y35,Y89.0)


Anemias (D50-D64)

Atherosclerosis (I70)

Aortic aneurysm and dissection (I71)

Diseases of the circulatory system (I00-I99)


Diarrhea and gastroenteritis of infectious origin (A09)

congenital conditions

Congenital malformations, deformations and chromosomal abnormalities (Q00-Q99)

neonatal conditions

Disorders related to short gestation and low birth weight, not elsewhere classified (P07)

Newborn affected by maternal complications of pregnancy (P01)

Sudden infant death syndrome (R95)

Newborn affected by complications of placenta, cord and membranes (P02)

Bacterial sepsis of newborn (P36)

Respiratory distress of newborn (P22)

Neonatal hemorrhage (P50-P52,P54)

Necrotizing enterocolitis of newborn (P77)

Intrauterine hypoxia and birth asphyxia (P20-P21)

Certain conditions originating in the perinatal period (P00-P96)


Pregnancy, childbirth and the puerperium (O00-O99)

other causes not in the 15 leading causes for each age group

All other causes (residual)


This visualization is based on US data from the National Center for Health Statistics for 2014. However, death rates for age groups over 85 years are omitted from this data (why? is the NCHS too squeamish to admit that death rates are pretty high as you approach 100 years old?)

So I estimated the death rates for all causes for age groups over 85 years by extrapolating from the death rates for all causes for age groups 5 - 9 years through 80 - 84 years (i.e. excluding the higher death rates for infants 0 - 1 years and children 1 - 4 years) with an order-6 polynomial trendline.

As a sanity check, I confirmed that the resulting death rates (10,667.226 for 85 - 89 years, 17,754.8784 for 90 - 94 years and 29,025.4084 for 95 - 99 years were more or less consistent with an overall death rate of 12,634.8 for all age groups over 85 years, based on Canadian data from Statistics Canada for 2009.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – National Center for Health Statistics – National Vital Statistics System – Deaths, percent of total deaths, and death rates for the 15 leading causes of death in 5-year age groups, by race and sex: United States, 2014

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – National Center for Health Statistics – National Vital Statistics System – Infant, neonatal, and postneonatal deaths, percent of total deaths, and mortality rates for the 15 leading causes of infant death by race and sex: United States, 2014

Statistics Canada – Leading Causes of Death in Canada – Ten leading causes of death by selected age groups, by sex, Canada – 85 years and over


First published 3 October 2017

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