There was a news item yesterday about the death on a former TV news talk show personality Ed Schultz that said he died at the age of 64 of natural causes. One rarely hears that term used to describe people’s deaths any more. Usually they specify the proximate cause of death (cancer, heart failure, and so on). In the old days, dying from natural causes was the description given for someone who lived to a ripe old age, gradually became more and more infirm as their body started to fail in various ways due to the aging process, and then died more or less peacefully. But what does it mean these days to die of natural causes? After all, Schultz was not particularly old. I became curious as to what the term ‘natural causes’ has come to mean because after all, there has to be some cause.
A death certificate has to specify the cause of death and according to Wikipedia, physicians are discouraged from using the phrases ‘natural causes’ or ‘old age’ because it does not help in compiling health and mortality statistics.
A death by natural causes, as recorded by coroners and on death certificates and associated documents, is the end result of an illness or an internal malfunction of the body not directly caused by external forces, typically due to old age. This is especially true when an elderly person has several different conditions or diseases, but where it appears that none of them alone or together may clearly lead to the death, and it is uncertain which condition was the final factor causing death… Health departments discourage listing old age as the cause of death because doing so does not benefit public health or medical research. Old age is not a scientifically recognized cause of death; there is always a more direct cause, although it may be unknown in certain cases and could be one of a number of aging-associated diseases.
In obituaries, there seem to be some conventions. People who die of cancer are almost invariably said to have succumbed after ‘battling’ the disease, but that fight metaphor is not usually applied to those who die due to other diseases, although they too may have undergone long and arduous treatments.