Can You Die of Old Age? More Doctors Are Saying Yes

In announcing last week that Queen Elizabeth II died peacefully at age 96, Buckingham Palace didn’t give a cause.

It hasn’t been publicly disclosed whether the queen suffered from a particular fatal ailment, but the circumstances pointed to a debate that has been growing in Japan, one of the world’s most aged nations. When a very old person dies without any obvious trigger, should doctors try to come up with a cause? Or is it acceptable to say that the person died of old age?

Doctors are increasingly going with the latter. The third-most-common cause of death in Japan last year was rōsui, a word that combines characters meaning “old age” and “decline.” It is generally translated as dying of old age, and it accounted for more than one in 10 deaths, trailing only cancer and heart disease.

“We would say these days, ‘She had all sorts of conditions but since she was old, let’s say she died of old age,’ ” said Akihisa Iguchi, a gerontologist and emeritus professor at Nagoya University. He said families are usually fine with that.

Dr. Iguchi said rōsui could become the nation’s No. 1 cause of death as aging advances.

Japan’s view remains an outlier. Old age isn’t on the World Health Organization’s top-10 list of causes of death globally, nor on the U.S. top-10 list released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease, cancer and Covid-19 were the top three causes of death in the U.S. in 2020.

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