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We only die once… but from how many causes?

Population and Societies

534, June 2016

When a person dies, the certifying physician records the cause of death on the death certificate. In many cases, several causes are mentioned, as well as the train of events that led to death. Aline Désesquelles and her colleagues explain why this type of information is useful for studying
trends in causes of death in a country, and why international comparisons are difficult, notably because of cross-national differences in the ways medical certificates are completed.

Analysing causes of death provides a better understanding of long-term mortality trends. In France, the death certificates completed by physicians generally mention several causes of death (2.4 on average in 2011). As a general rule, just one of them, the so-called underlying cause, is taken into account. As a result, the contribution of certain diseases – endocrine diseases for example – to mortality is severely underestimated. In a context of rising life expectancy where people increasingly die not from a single cause of death but from several, it is important to also take these contributing causes into account.

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