September 27th, 2011
05:00 PM ET

How we die

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on Twitter.

By Micah Zenko

Although it is probably a misattribution, Joseph Stalin is reported to have said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Every year, between 55 and 60 million people die, while roughly 140 million people are born. According to the most recent estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are approximately 6.96 billion people currently living around the world.

The nearly seven billion people alive speak to the spectacular progress and advancements of modern health care, specifically in the fields of infant mortality and health of the elderly. However, the vast majority of people who die prematurely are due to causes that are entirely preventable.

For example, over 90 percent of people worldwide will die from causes that do not make the headline news. Specifically, 29 percent of people in low- and middle-income countries will die from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) before the age of sixty. In addition, the variation between countries in the crude death rate - average deaths per 1,000 people - is astonishing, and suggests that the international community and national governments could do much more to promote targeted and cost-effective preventive strategies.  The human, social, moral, and economic costs of these preventable and premature deaths are incalculable.

Mortality statistics are a grim and often misrepresented account of our short time on this earth. They are often grossly inflated to get the attention of the media or donors, or understated by governments or corporations to avoid culpability. Perhaps most significantly, mortality statistics do not account for the even greater number of people who suffer from chronic diseases, severe disabilities, or the social, environmental, and economic conditions that inhibit healthy and productive lives.

Nevertheless, in an era of increasingly limited government budgets, mortality statistics can be useful in considering how to most effectively prioritize preventive activities. If you were in a position of power and had say $100 million to spend on preventing premature deaths, where would your priorities lie?

For the latest mortality statistics from the World Health Organization, see below:

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soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. saywhatagain

    It isn't Stalin you are quoting, but General Zukov of the Russian Army.

    September 27, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    There are many ways to die. Many deaths are human inflicted and the rest as a result of a force majeure.
    Premature deaths can be prevented if the population leads a health conscious life.

    September 28, 2011 at 8:42 am | Reply
  3. best solution

    Best expense of limited funds to increase quality of life and decrease premature deaths?- birth control.

    September 28, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Reply
  4. Brandon

    If we are actually able to drastically decrease the number of preventable deaths, it will simply exacerbate another grand scale problem, limited resources. And we all know how humans don't like to be told that they are no longer allowed to be as prolific as rabbits.

    October 2, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Reply
    • JMarra

      Exactly right. Any extension of life or reduction in death must be accompanied by a reduction in the birth rate, otherwise we'll just eat and defecate our way to an even nastier death.

      October 9, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Reply
  5. Cora

    I find it interestign that more people die from falls than so many other things- fire, war, starvation, congenital diseases?!? Why doesn't someone organize a 5k for fall prevention?

    October 3, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Reply
    • rj1smith

      Darn straight. Frankly, I'm shocked and appalled by the lack of protests against automobile accidents, which kill nearly ten times the amount that wars cause. It's about time for our leaders to get people out of cars, and into war zones, which are far safer, statistically.

      October 12, 2011 at 11:26 am | Reply
  6. Dallas

    Who cares. Death is the inevitable outcome of life.

    October 5, 2011 at 7:31 pm | Reply
  7. Dee2118

    I don't see how certain kinds of cancer are entirely preventable. How about brain cancer, ovarian cancer, pancreatice cancer. These are cancers that often are found late because there are no symptoms. There are others too that are almost always fatal.
    What if you are hit by a runaway vehicle – I know that could have been prevented by the perpetrator but the victim couldn't predict and prevent it from happening.
    I just wish the wording about "entirely preventable" would have been different

    October 17, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Reply

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