Heart disease and cancer are overwhelmingly the most common causes of death in the United States. But researchers always like to dig deeper in to health trends than that. A new map, published by the CDC, shows the illnesses and accidents that disproportionately claim people in each state. For example, syphilis claims a uniquely high percent of people in Louisiana, while a distinctive number of people in Florida die of HIV.
To make this "distinctive" cause of death map, researchers looked at a list of 136 causes of death gleaned from records from 2001 to 2010. Next they figured out which causes were disproportionately common — in other words, when compared with the national average, which cause of death was the biggest outlier in each state? What they found often reflects the state's reputation: People in Northern states die from respiratory infections which are often brought on by cold weather; black lung disease (pneumoconioses) shows up in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky where mining is still common; and deaths from legal intervention — a death at crime scene that could be caused by either law enforcement or a civilian — top the list in Oregon, Nevada and New Mexico.
Scott Hensley interviewed the researcher who came up with the map — Francis Boscoe at the New York State Cancer Registry — for NPR’s "Shots" blog:
"To be honest, I was seeing these maps about a year ago," he tells Shots. One he points to is a state-by-state map of distinctive musical artists based on the online listening habits of people across the country. In other words, which artist was listened to far more often in one state than the others.
"I wondered what it would look like if you applied this to something more serious, like mortality data," he says.
The map is certainly interesting (and a little morbid). But it comes with some caveats too. In some states, the number of people actually dying from these distinctive causes is really low. And Boscoe and his colleague Eva Pradhan write point out that the cause of death isn't always accurate: "For example, a study found that nearly half of the death certificates certified by physicians in a suburban Florida county contained major errors, often reflecting confusion between the underlying cause of death and the terminal mechanism of death."
For The Atlantic, Olga Khazan explains some of what this measure can’t tell researchers:
It’s important to keep in mind, because this isn’t the most common cause of death, that in some states just a few dozen people are dying of each of these conditions. The report authors note that the numbers of deaths depicted on the map range “from 15,000 deaths from HIV in Florida to 679 deaths from tuberculosis in Texas to 22 deaths from syphilis in Louisiana.” In Montana, just 11 people died of rapidly progressive nephritic and nephrotic syndrome, a type of kidney disease.
Also, the map only highlights one unique cause of death, when some states deserve two. Hensley for NPR reports:
"Some states deserve to have more than one color," he says, because there are a couple of causes that rise above the rest. In Nevada, for instance, he says, atherosclerosis and legal intervention (which is a death in the context of a crime scene and could be either someone in law enforcement or a civilian) were both quite high.
In general, he says, the most distinctive cause of death in each state is at least double the corresponding national rate. He plans on looking at that doubling rule of thumb in more detail.