Why are death data important?
First, in combination with fertility and migration, mortality determines changes in the size and structure of a population. This makes knowing who is dying essential to both public and private sector planning, including in health systems and public health.
Second, mortality data are one of the most reliable and universally available measures of the general health of a population. It tells us how long people live, at what ages they die, and how this differs based on characteristics such as race, sex, and zip code.
Third, mortality data describe how people die. These descriptions are not complete, and rarely reflect all of the causes that contribute to a given death. Still, in the aggregate, this provides some sense of the differences between groups of people and the role of preventable causes of death. For instance, if people living in one zip code have an especially high rate of liver disease, this could point to high rates of alcohol use as an important public health risk in that area.
Top causes of death for our region
In Jefferson, Lewis, and St. Lawrence County between 2010 and 2014, the top causes of death were as follows. Age-adjusted death rates per 100,000 residents per year are shown in parentheses:
- Heart disease (263.0)
- Cancer (181.4)
- Respiratory disease (80.4)
- External causes (50.6)
- Digestive disease (31.0)
- Mental, behavioral, and neurodevelopmental disorders (29.7)
- Endocrine, nutritional, & metabolic disorders (31.4)
- Nervous system disease (33.1)
- Genitourinary disease (20.3)
- Infectious and parasitic disease (15.8)
All other causes – 26.8
Heart disease is the leading cause of death by a wide margin, followed by cancer. Respiratory disease and external causes are also especially important. (“External causes” includes all injuries and poisonings, whether accidental or intentionally inflicted).
While death is an unavoidable consequence of aging and a natural part of life, some deaths are directly attributable to risk factors in a person’s environment or unhealthy behaviors. Exact estimates vary widely, but consistently rank the two leading causes of preventable death in the United States as tobacco use and obesity. Alcohol use and infectious disease usually rank a distant third and fourth. By looking at geographic and demographic patterns and trends, as well as specific causes of death and other details, we can improve our understanding of the role that these risk factors play within our region and better direct our efforts to address them.
Highlighting this need, in a comparison with the rest of the state, the overall death rate for our three counties is higher, with the top four cause of death categories accounting for most of this difference.
This disparity reflects an Upstate-Downstate mortality divide. In 2014, only two Upstate counties had mortality rates below the statewide average. They were Saratoga County, in the Capital Region, which is mostly suburban, and Tompkins County in the Finger Lakes region, the site of City of Ithaca and Cornell University. These are two of the highest per capita income counties in Upstate New York, and have especially large population shares of adults who have completed at least four years of college level education. Unsurprisingly, income and education levels are strong predictors of higher life expectancy and better health status, at both the individual and county levels.
For more information on health indicators in the tri-county region, visit the North Country Health Compass at www.ncnyhealthcompass.org.