Above: Image © iNueng, iStock

Eventually, everybody dies. So what is the point of medical research? Why try to cure cancer or heart disease? Even if scientists find an amazing cure, people will surely just die of something else. Why bother?

Just because everyone dies doesn’t mean that scientists shouldn’t work to help people live the longest, most enjoyable life possible. Some people die at 100. Other people only live to 25. There’s a big difference between the two.

Researchers look at premature deaths to evaluate how good a health system is at helping its users stay healthy. Statistics Canada tracks not just whether deaths were premature, but also if they were preventable or treatable. In fact, a big goal of Canada’s health system is to cut down on the number of premature deaths that were preventable or treatable.

Did you know? In 2008, 40 percent of all deaths in Canada were premature. Of these, 72 percent were considered treatable or preventable.

Preventable and treatable deaths

In Canada and many other developed countries, a death is considered premature if the person dies before they turn 75. That’s because 75 is close to the life expectancy for people born in these countries. As life expectancy rises, a country’s benchmark age for premature death rises, too.

But not all premature deaths are preventable or treatable.

A preventable cause of death is one that could have been avoided by some sort of intervention. For example, a 2012 report showed that lung cancer was a leading cause of preventable death in Canada. If you quit smoking or don’t start smoking in the first place, your chances of getting lung cancer are much lower. Drunk driving is another example. If you don’t drink and drive, your chances of getting in a deadly car accident are much lower.

By informing people of the dangers of smoking and drunk driving, governments can help prevent lung cancer and car accidents from even happening in the first place.

A treatable death is one where the underlying cause could have been effectively treated. For example, the same 2012 report showed that breast cancer is a large cause of treatable death in Canada. Many breast cancers aren’t preventable. However, most breast cancers can be cured if doctors catch them early enough. That’s why regular breast cancer screening is important. If screening doesn’t happen, or if the diagnosis comes too late, treatment may not help.

Did you know? Between 2005 and 2014, over 800 people died in Ontario because they were not wearing a seatbelt.

Avoiding death

Not all premature deaths are avoidable. For example, if a person dies from an illness that is neither preventable nor treatable, their death is unavoidable. This is true even if they are younger than 75. But as long as the cause is preventable or treatable, there are things you can do to reduce your chances of a premature death.

For example, that 2012 report showed that cancer was the leading cause of preventable death in Canada. To reduce your chance of getting cancer, you can eat more fruits and vegetables, get enough exercise and maintain a healthy body weight. And don’t smoke! Heart disease and stroke are other frequent causes of premature death. Eating healthy and getting regular exercise can reduce your chances of getting these when you’re older, too.

There are also many other small lifestyle changes that can help increase your chances of living a long, healthy life. For example, car accidents are a common cause of avoidable death among people under age 30. Want to reduce your chances of being in a fatal accident? Don’t speed, text while driving or drive drunk. Also, wear your seatbelt. That way, if you are in an accident, any injuries you get may be easier to treat.

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As the scientist Richard Doll once said: “Death in old age is inevitable, but death before old age is not.” Scientific knowledge can’t make you immortal. However, there is a big difference between dying young and dying in old age after living a (hopefully!) satisfying life.

Preventable or treatable premature death is rather common. And there’s a lot that you can do to increase your life expectancy and quality of life. By taking care of your body, you can hopefully live a long and satisfying life!

Learn more!

The Top 5 Causes of Premature Death (2006)
National Health Services

Health Indicators (2012)
Statistics Canada and Canadian Institute for Health Information

Measuring the Quality of Medical Care — A Clinical Method (1976)
Rutstein et al., The New England Journal of Medicine 204

Daniel Tarade

A Bosnian immigrant, I moved to Canada during my childhood years. I completed an Honour’s Arts and Science degree with a major in biochemistry at the University of Windsor in my hometown. During my undergraduate years, I worked as a research assistant, evaluating the anti-cancer activity of various novel chemotherapeutics. My early exposure to research evolved into a passion for studying cancer and I am currently enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Toronto, studying the role of oxygen in cancer progression. In addition to research, I also enjoy reading, Frisbee, and going for walks.