We all die of something eventually, but the reasons shift quite a bit over time. In 1900, people in America were most likely to die of influenza and pneumonia. By the 1930s, heart disease had become the number one killer, a position it still enjoys today. Meanwhile, cancer in 1910 was nothing like the threat it is now: only the eighth leading cause of death. Now it’s the second most dangerous disease.
You can see how the causes of death have changed over the years from this graphic. It was developed by the New England Journal of Medicine and uses data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There’s a lot of good news. Diseases among children were the fourth or fifth greatest killers well into the 20th century; now they’re uncommon in America. Likewise kidney-related diseases (nephropathies), which were fourth biggest killers in 1940, but are nowhere to be seen, statistically speaking, these days. Modern medicine has done wonders, notably antibiotics, which first appeared in the 1940s.
However, the journal points out that not all the ebb-and-flow of disease is down to science and health care. In the 1940s, scientists claimed victory for the decline of tuberculosis in Europe and North America. But arguably the disease was declining before then, due to standard of living improvements.” Heart disease, like tuberculosis, followed a century-long epidemic wave, peaking in the United States in the 1960s before beginning 50 years of decline. “Researchers have struggled to determine how much credit should be given to health care providers and how much to risk-factor reduction,” says NEJM.
By the time antibiotics and vaccines began combating infectious diseases, mortality had shifted toward heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Great progress has been made to meet these challenges, but the burden of disease will surely shift again.
The constant struggle for medicine is to keep up with the changing burden of disease. Modern medicine hasn’t solved death yet.