What Does It Really Mean to 'Die of Old Age?'

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The term dying of old age is an expression used to explain the death of someone who died of natural causes related to aging. Old age itself is subjective, and as a result, does not in and of itself cause death. There may be underlying health conditions or diseases contributing to a person's death, but rarely does anyone die of old age alone.  

As people get older, their chances increase of them suffering from medical issues related to aging. Some examples include physical ailments, disease, and a breakdown of the immune system. So, when an older person dies peacefully in their sleep, the cause of death on their death certificate may be listed as having died of natural causes. 

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However, some states now require a more specific cause of death listed and won't allow for the use of "old age" or "natural causes" by itself. These restrictions have prompted doctors and coroners alike to list catch-all causes of death such as pneumonia or cardiac arrest where appropriate. 

What Does "Dying of Old Age" Mean?

Dying old age can have many different meanings, depending on who you ask and what they consider as being "old." There isn't any universal indicator of what constitutes dying of old age. It usually means having lived a long life, generally to between the age of 80 and 100, and not having any one major contributing factor directly associated with an older adult's death. 

Dying a good death can take on an entirely different meaning for someone in their 70s versus someone in their 90s. Life can be a struggle for people in their 80 and 90s even though they may be in overall relatively good health.

Social connections deteriorate and are challenging to sustain, and overall health and well-being can start taking a natural downturn towards the inevitable. A person who dies peacefully with no outright indicator contributing to their death is generally deemed to have died of old age.

Other reasons why people die of old age are associated with:

  • Dying naturally from an ailment or disease associated with aging
  • The biological process of the body’s natural breakdown as it ages
  • The decline in the renewability of cells due to aging

Aging on its own is not a cause of death. When you hear someone say that someone has died of old age, what they might mean is that someone died due to an illness or an event that a younger, healthier, and stronger person would likely have survived. Some examples can include illnesses like pneumonia or heart disease. 

The term dying of old age has different connotations depending on who you ask. People have varying views on what it means to die of old age.

Although there's no medical term for dying of old age, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) regards dying due to old age as an appropriate term to use when a more senior person has died where there are no underlying issues present. Some people consider dying of old age as meaning that disease ultimately resulted in an older person's death.

What Typically Happens When Someone Dies of Old Age?

When someone dies due to the deterioration of their body, it’s usually considered dying of old age. Typically there's a subsequent or underlying disease associated with their declining physical or cognitive function. As a person gets older, their mind and body naturally start to lose their abilities. 

The body gradually and naturally becomes frailer even in the absence of an ailment or disease. Over time, an aging adult's mind also starts to lose some of its cognition, and they may start developing some age-related health issues over the years.

An older person can benefit from reading books about death and aging to understand better the biological process and some of the options they may have available to them as they age. 

Sometimes death comes quietly and somewhat expectedly. It may be that an older person dies in their sleep or when sitting in their favorite chair watching television. Even this type of death is attributed or linked to a medical event. Heart attacks can sometimes be a silent killer when the heart stops in the middle of the night during sleep.

Another example would be dying from pneumonia acquired after hospitalization or a procedure directly linked to an event such as a bad fall. In most cases, older people die of an accumulation of these types of illnesses and happenings. 

Signs of dying of old age

When someone is said to be dying of old age, the body starts to shut down a little each day until the person dies. In some instances, there's a triggering event that accelerates the body's shutting down leading to death. Some minor falls or injuries may sometimes be enough to trigger a rapid decline.

There are some symptoms that can occur when someone's dying of old age but may not be enough for others to think that they are sick with an illness. They can include the following:

  • Increased levels of sleep
  • Cognitive declines such as confusion and inability to remember things
  • Changes in appetite 
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Depression
  • Frailness

As the dying process progresses, an older person can experience a shift in their breathing pattern accompanied by a loss of appetite and an inability to drink water for hydration. They may also suffer from poor blood circulation and quickly move to irritability, anger, and frustration. 

Some other signs and symptoms present during the dying process for someone older can include cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, dementia, and cancer. While these may not be the main reasons behind their death, these factors contribute to older adults' dying process.

Grief-related responses to dying of old age

There's also an emotional component to the dying process for older people. For someone in the final stages of life, their mindset may shift to being ready to accept death. Many older adults prefer death over becoming a burden on their family and loved ones.

Many are concerned with dying a good death at home versus experiencing a slow deterioration in a long-term care setting or other hospital or clinical settings.

Depression is likely to sink in during this final stage of life. Thoughts of how their physical and medical condition impacts their loved ones and how their quality of life has deteriorated may consume an older person. Most people who reach this last stage of life have come to terms with their death and are no longer afraid to die. They instead welcome this transition.

Why Do People Say They’d Like to Die of Old Age?

When a person says that they'd rather die of old age, they might mean to say that they're hoping to die a quiet and uneventful death in the comfort of their homes, rather than suffering instead through their last days and weeks of life battling a disease or illness. Some people would rather die of old age than due to sickness, disease, or a painful accident. 

If you've ever heard someone say that their loved one died of old age, it turns out that from a medical perspective, that's not quite exactly what happened. Old age in and of itself is not a medically recognized cause of death.

Generally, when someone says that their loved one died of old age, it means that they died as a result of an illness or the suggestion of a fatal event that someone younger and healthier would've likely recovered from and survived.

Aging adults who say that they'd rather die of old age often mean to say they wish to die without the presence of a life-threatening illness, disease, or a psychiatric disorder. Many people are afraid of mental and cognitive decline as they advance in age.

These fears tend to lead to the onset of depression and other beliefs generally associated with the development of death ideations among the elderly.

Some older adults who wish to die of old age have contemplated what it means to die of other declining health-related conditions. A part of the indicators of dying a good death relates to an individual's determination of time and manner of death.

With an increasing life expectancy, more and more people are dying at older ages. An older person is often affected by illness and disease as an inevitable part of aging. They're sometimes faced with dementia, heart disease, cancer, and other complications that account for end-of-life suffering and difficulties.

For the most part, an older person wants to control their healthcare as they're nearing the end of their life and the quality of care they receive. Many older adults prefer to die at home, but the reality is that only a few will do so. Many will die in hospices or receiving palliative care in a long-term care facility or a hospital setting.

The death positive movement has helped people vocalize their intent to die comfortably at home and is at the top of many older people's death wishes. Comfort during their last days of life is one of the primary motivators behind the concept of dying a good death at an old age. 

The Meaning Behind Dying of Old Age 

As with everything in life, you can't know for sure when and how your life will end. Dying of old age is a subjective way of determining what death represents to each individual. A person in their 50s can have the perspective of them being old, while at the same time a person who is 90 can think of themselves as young.

The concept of dying of old age generally means that a person has lived their life and has died in the advanced age of natural causes unrelated to a major health issue or disease.


Sources:

  1. Kohn, Robert. “Cause of Death in Very Old People.” JAMA, 28 May 1982, jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/373331
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