What’s killing us, then and now

By » Sat, June 23 2012
death 450x328 Whats killing us, then and now

You’re gonna die. (img by New England Journal of Medicine)

The New England Journal of Medicine celebrates its 200th birthday this year with a retrospective on what’s been killing us since they first published under the impressive title New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery, and the Collateral Branches of Science.  The size of the business card necessary to hold that title may have contributed to the mortality rate and you can check that fact by playing with their cool interactive graphic on the Top Ten Causes of Death.

Early reports from the Journal looked at things that are still killing us today, asthma, gunshot wounds, spina bifida but our current understanding medicine makes others rather entertaining to read.

Apoplexy, a syndrome of fainting spells that might mean stroke, seizure, or syncope today, was understood to arise from a “nervous sympathy” by which the stomach influenced the head. Doctors agreed that even a near miss by a cannonball — without contact — could shatter bones, blind people, or even kill them. Reports of spontaneous combustion, especially of “brandy-drinking men and women,” received serious, if skeptical, consideration. And physicians were obsessed with fevers — puerperal, petechial, catarrhal, and even an outbreak of “spotted fever” in which some patients were neither spotted nor febrile. The bill of mortality from 1811 contains both the familiar and the exotic. Consumption, diarrhea, and pneumonia dominated the mortality data, but teething, worms, and drinking cold water apparently killed as well.

death 2 450x485 Whats killing us, then and now

See, these people died. (img by The New England Journal of Medicine)

The article examines the changes in how we perceive and understand disease and our growing awareness that the causes of disease can vary, whether through genetic variation or lack of access to medical care but also states:

Health inequalities remain ubiquitous, not just among races and ethnic groups but also according to geography, sex, educational level, occupation, income, and other gradients of wealth and power.

The article concludes that disease is more than just a series of symptoms that can be cleared up and reminds doctors and the rest of us that if we want to work to eradicate diseases, we must understand the interactions between the social and the scientific, and continue the hunt for the knowledge which simultaneously changes the human beings it seeks to describe.

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