What how we died in 1880 tells us about how we live now

Dina Rickman@dinarickman
Tuesday 10 June 2014 18:00

What can we learn from the leading causes of death in England and Wales in 1880 and more than 100 years later?

Firstly, cancer is now the most common recorded cause of death - from three per cent in 1880 to 29 per cent in 2012, the most recent Office for National Statistics figures show.

Stroke and heart disease is now 300 per cent more common than in 1880, while infectious diseases are 96 per cent less common - as is death during pregnancy and/or straight after birth, for women and children.

Improvements in medicine, hygiene and sanitation can account for some reasons why deaths from infectious diseases and after pregnancy have fallen. In 1880 tuberculosis killed 80,000 people in a year - in 2012, it killed just 261.

As for the increase in cancer, stroke and heart disease, Joe Hicks and Grahame Allen, who compiled the statistics on causes of death in 1880, explained: "In 1880 such diseases were rare, or undetected."

They point out a further change not shown in the data: the increase in life expectancy. In 1911-15, nearly two thirds of deaths were "premature", meaning the person was under 60. But by 1995, only 12 per cent of all deaths were of people under 60. Now the Department of Health uses premature mortality to refer to people who die before the age of 75.