An editorial in the 200th anniversary issue of the New England Journal of Medicine looks at mortality and health through the centuries, and includes this chart of causes of death from the turn of the last century, which makes for quite a comparison. We’re doing great on kidneys, but hearts not so much.
During the 20th century, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic conditions assumed more dominant roles (see bar graphTop 10 Causes of Death: 1900 vs. 2010.), although outbreaks of infectious disease — from eastern equine encephalitis (1938) and kuru (1957) to legionnaires’ disease (1977), AIDS (1981), and multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (1993) — necessitated ongoing vigilance against microbes. New concerns also came to medical attention, from the terrifying consequences of thermonuclear war (1962) to the indolent but devastating effects of environmental pollution (1966) and climate change (1989). Optimism about prospects for the health of future populations persisted but remained tempered by concern about the pathologies of civilization. An obesity epidemic, feared in 1912, has come to pass. Our previously steady increase in life expectancy has stalled and may even be reversed (2005).