At 96, Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch, passed away at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. According to her recently released death certificate, she died from “old age.”
But what does that mean exactly? From a medical perspective, “dying of old age” isn’t an actual cause of death. The phrase may make more sense as “died due to complications of old age.” All human bodies age, though at different rates than others. Regardless, our age can significantly impact how our bodies react to injuries and illnesses that can lead to death.
How We Age
According to the Mayo Clinic, as we age, our bodies change in many ways. Our bone and muscle density may shrink. Our blood vessels and arteries can become stiff, our sight and hearing can become less sharp and our skin thins. This happens because cells in specific tissues either regenerate at a slower rate or don’t regenerate at all. For example, our skin loses elasticity because cell regeneration slows down with age. Cells in the brain may live a long time but do not regenerate after they die off. This can lead to cognitive decline.
However, a healthy diet and regular exercise are recommended to help slow aging.
How Age Impacts Our Health
What age is considered old? There are multiple sources with multiple answers. According to an article from the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, people ages 60 to 75 are considered older in Germany. People ages 75 to 90 are considered elderly, and anyone over 90 is considered old. In the U.S., however, turning 65 qualifies a person as a senior citizen. There isn’t one exact age to quantify “old,” as many people in their 60s and 70s are in great health.
Old age isn’t the leading cause of death; it's the cause of multiple factors that can lead to death. However, as we age and our body stops regenerating cells or we become less active, our ability to stay healthy can become more complex. For example, prolonged arthritis or osteoporosis can make it more difficult for a person to exercise, leading to bone density loss and muscle fatigue. Less active, older adults can develop stiffer blood vessels and arteries, which means the heart has to work harder to move blood throughout the body. This can eventually lead to heart failure.
Older people are also more prone to die from pneumonia and the flu because their bodies are not strong enough to fight the illness. As we age, our immune system produces fewer B and T cells that help fight infection.
For Queen Elizabeth II, saying she died of old age is vague and having vague death certificates can be unhelpful. The certificate helps keep a record of what people, regardless of age, have died from. This way, medical professionals can better understand what ailments may be affecting people in the area and find ways to prevent them.