Well it’s not quite what you might expect.
Figures just published in the United States show that the main causes of death for centenarians in 2014 were heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, cancer, and influenza/pneumonia. Remember that last one.
As you’d expect, the causes of death for 15-24 year olds are very different (and very violent): this database shows the top five were road traffic accidents, suicide, homicide, poisoning and other injuries.
As we get older,we start to die more from disease than from sudden events. At 65-74, what gets us (or at least, gets Americans) is heart disease, lung cancer, lung disease, stroke and diabetes. Over 75, it’s a similar list except that Alzheimer’s replaces diabetes.
But as we’ve seen, when you’re over 100 influenza and pneumonia come back into the equation. Why does that matter?
Well it suggests that right to the end of their lives centenarians maintained a degree of protection against developing those nasty chronic illnesses like cancer which did away with people 30 years younger than them.
Instead what got them was a nasty acute illness like the ‘flu.
That’s supported by a UK study which also found that centenarians are more likely to have causes of death certified as pneumonia and frailty and less likely to have causes of death of cancer or heart disease. The authors suggest that centenarians are a group who have ‘outlived’ chronic diseases which are common as causes of death among ‘younger’ older cohorts.
All of which suggests that centenarians are not simply people who have managed to hang on for longer than the rest of us. Instead, they were different from us to begin with.
How? Well, we’ll start to explore that in our next blog on ‘not smoking’…