Mortality Trend, Differentials & Determinants

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  • 0:01 Differential Mortality
  • 0:57 Sex Differentials
  • 2:37 Age Differentials
  • 3:38 Social Status Differentials
  • 4:54 Urban/Rural Differential
  • 6:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Although we all know that everybody dies eventually, researchers still like to know why people are dying. In this lesson, we'll explore some causes of death within specific groups and see how researchers use this knowledge to understand why people die.

Differential Mortality

Everybody dies. Oh boy, this is going to be a cheery one, isn't it? Sorry, but it's true. Everybody dies, but not everybody dies for the same reason. In fact, people die for very different reasons, and for someone who works in public health, knowing those reasons is really important - someone like this guy.

John Study

This here is our old friend John Study, a public health worker who's trying to identify main reasons for death so he can implement the most effective policies for a healthier community. To do this, John Study is going to rely on differential mortality, or a study of the differences in death rates between specific groups. From there, he can identify and address public health issues. Yes, everybody dies eventually, but at least we can keep our communities healthy for as long as possible.

Sex Differentials

Okay, so let's start with one of the most obvious differences between people in a population. Sex differentials in mortality are differences in the rates of death between men and women. For practically all of human history, men and women have died for different reasons. In fact, the sex differential is so important that it frames almost every other study. If you want to look at mortality rates by age or ethnicity or wealth, you have to do different studies for men versus women.

So, what are the trends in sex differentials? Well, it's been a consistent factor across history that the mortality rate for men is higher than that for women; more men die per year than women. But, why? Many people try to explain this through behavioral differences. The problem is this rate is too consistent for that. If it were a matter of behavior, then you'd see vastly different rates by culture since gender-based behaviors are completely cultural. But, that's not what we see.

Instead, we see different causes of death based on biological differences between men and women. Historically, female mortality was mostly due to issues with childbirth, whereas male mortality was linked to fatal diseases and medical conditions like heart failure. Now, behavior is a factor; for example, more men die in warfare than women, but overall this category is so important because each sex has unique health risks, and these risks greatly influence mortality.

Age Differentials

Another way we can examine mortality is through age differentials, or differences in mortality rates of different age groups. This can help to illustrate risks specific to people of various ages within a population. Generally, we see a very high risk of death amongst infants, which then steadily decreases into a person's twenties.

The first increase in mortality is between 30-54 years of age, where chronic diseases appear early for those with the highest risk of them. Say you are especially high risk for heart disease, you may fall into this category. After that, we see another major increase from 68-89 years of age, where degenerative conditions associated with aging become common. So, it's useful to know that people of different age groups are more or less likely to face certain risks. By being aware of this, we can do our best to fix it.

Social Status Differentials

Hey, we're making good progress with these differentials. So, what's next? Social status differentials are mortality rates for people in different social classes. This means looking at the poor, the wealthy, and all those in between. Now, this is a tricky one that really varies by society. Generally, there is an observable trend that mortality rates are higher amongst the lower classes. Back in the early 20th century, this difference was pretty high, with a much higher percentage of the impoverished population dying per year than the wealthy population. However, over time better access to health care helped reduce this difference. But, like I said, this is tricky to study.

Why are people with less money at higher risks? Many theories point to poorer hygiene, less access to preventative medicine, low-quality food, and even the risks of manual versus managerial labor in some places. The fact is there are too many various factors to know for sure, so the social status differential is not an end-all-be-all kind of statistic. It's a great starting point to identify where there are major health risks, but you do need to go deeper from there.

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