Dying of “old age”… it certainly is a head-scratcher, and it can make people curious as to what actually is the cause of a person's death. This has become apparent with the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II, as it was announced that "old age" was the cause of death on her death certificate. But what does it mean to die of old age?
Dying of old age is such a vague cause of death. Technically, there is no such thing as dying from old age, but it is a term that is often used to generalize someone’s death, which may be down to a number of causes and factors.
In the UK, dying of “old age” is used in conjunction with the term “frailty”. Describing cause of death in this way is something that has a long history. In fact, in the 19th century, this description was used to describe people that had died suddenly or were “found dead”.
Nowadays, there are strict guidelines and limited circumstances that dictate when you can put this term on a UK death certificate. For example, the doctor has to have observed a decline in the patient's health, cared for the person personally over a long period, not be aware of any other disease that caused the death, and have no reason why the death should be reported to a coroner.
Often, there are other causes you can put on the certificate that better describe the cause of death. For example, in England and Wales, the leading causes of death in 2021 were COVID-19 and dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that the leading causes of death in Americans aged 65 and over are heart disease, cancer, and COVID-19.
As a person ages, some common issues may affect them more, such as the immune system being in decline and cells being unable to repair themselves as easily. So, some illnesses that a younger and healthier person may get over, could lead to death in an older person. For example, if an elderly person “has a fall” and then goes into hospital to get checked up, they could catch pneumonia from that environment, which could eventually result in their death.
Dying of old age may also be used to describe the death of an older person that occurs during the night, possibly due to a person’s heart stopping in their sleep.
There are signs that may indicate whether a person is coming to the end of their life. These include:
- Sleeping more – due to energy levels being low
- Anxiety and depression – people may begin to fear for themselves or those left behind
- Appetite and digestive changes – digestion and metabolism can slow down, which causes a lack of thirst and appetite
- Changing vital signs – reduced circulation can make the outer limbs cold to the touch, this can cause the skin to become mottled as it turns dark blue or purple
- Sensory changes – a worsening of eyesight and sometimes delusion, hallucinations, and illusions
- Confusion – the person can be confused and have difficulty in recognizing key information like dates, people, or places
- Urinary and bladder incontinence – the bowel and bladder may become harder to control, and kidney failure could result in the darker and more concentrated color of urine
- Loss of consciousness – the person may have a difficult time waking up. This could cause them to be unresponsive and the eyes could be glassy in appearance
- Breathing changes – the breathing could become shallow and slow and fluid in the throat can occur once the muscles are relaxed, which could lead to a "death rattle" as the person is too weak to clear it by coughing
Dying of age-related concerns is becoming more common. Since 1800, global life expectancy has increased and humans are now expected to live more than twice as long as our ancestors in some parts of the world – due to the advancement of medicine.