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Death certificates with 50% error rate

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'Our knowledge about causes of death in old age is a black box'
Leonard Hayflick Scientist
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Alzheimer's disease, over the years… and I should say parenthetically at this point that very few people die of Alzheimer's disease, despite what that association and others might want you to believe. There are many people who die with Alzheimer's disease, which is a critical distinction. The cause of death attributable to Alzheimer's disease in the minds of most people can only be made on autopsy, which is rarely done. Consequently, dying from Alzheimer's disease, although it might be written on a death certificate, is rarely established with definity, which brings up another related subject that should be discussed very briefly at this point, and that is that there is a very strong probability that anyone who dies – other than an obvious accident or gunshot wound – anyone who dies over the age of 85, roughly, has a cause of death that is, frankly, unknown. Usually folks who live to that age, and beyond, have multiple pathologies. What has occurred in the United States, I believe, has also occurred in most developed countries – probably not all, although the data and information on this is obscure – but what has happened in the United States in the last 40 or 50 years is that the number of autopsies have plummeted to a point where the only time that an autopsy is usually done in the United States is when the cause of death is suspect, or when there's some legal issue involved that needs further information. Consequently, our knowledge about the causes of death of individuals in old age is essentially a black box.

Leonard Hayflick (b. 1928), the recipient of several research prizes and awards, including the 1991 Sandoz Prize for Gerontological Research, is known for his research in cell biology, virus vaccine development, and mycoplasmology. He also has studied the ageing process for more than thirty years. Hayflick is known for discovering that human cells divide for a limited number of times in vitro (refuting the contention by Alexis Carrel that normal body cells are immortal), which is known as the Hayflick limit, as well as developing the first normal human diploid cell strains for studies on human ageing and for research use throughout the world. He also made the first oral polio vaccine produced in a continuously propogated cell strain - work which contributed to significant virus vaccine development.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Alzheimer's disease, death, autopsy, cause of death

Duration: 2 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2011

Date story went live: 08 August 2012