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Data blog: Deaths in the 21st century - 12 years, 1300 causes, 6 million deaths

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Next month the premature and preventable mortality data in the Public Health Outcomes Framework and in Longer Lives is being updated and refreshed.

Mortality and dying data is a subject that generates much debate and mortality statistics are often in the news.

Some of the best data visualisations are about death - for example, this visualisation of deaths in the 20th century shows the number of deaths from different causes around the world.

This and the recent publication by The Office for National Statistics (ONS) for England and Wales, inspired us to try and visualise deaths in England in the 21st century.

ONS published data, at national level, of counts of deaths by age, sex and cause for the years 2001-2012. The dataset contains information about more than 6 million deaths from around 1300 different causes (depending on how you count them).

It's worth saying something about how ONS determines the cause of death from death certificates.

They publish data on what is known as the underlying cause of death. There can be up to eight causes recorded on death certificates but ONS use an automated system to determine the “main” cause for statistical purposes and that is what is presented here.

Death certificates have been coded with the ICD-10 system since 2001 but over that time there have been some changes in coding practice, the most recent of which reclassified vascular dementia from cardiovascular disease to mental disorders. You should be able to spot the blip this causes on the visualisation below.

A word about the visualisation. It's a bit of an experiment for us. We've been working with the Government Digital Service on embedding this interactive visualisation in the blog, taking advantage of one of the powerful tools out there.

We’ve presented aggregate counts of deaths by cause, age and sex and grouped data by ICD chapter, shown trends in number of deaths by time, and you can also get the number of deaths by any cause, year, age group and sex from the “tree map” presentation.

We haven’t calculated death rates although if counts of deaths stay constant over time, or fall, death rates must be decreasing. You can examine overall mortality expressed as directly standardised rates by local authority here.

We’d love to know what you make of the visualisation, and what you discover in it. How can it be improved? Here are five things we’ve noticed (some of which we already knew):

  1. The dramatic decline in cardiovascular deaths
  2. The recent increase in deaths from mental disorders (see above).
  3. Cancer became the commonest cause of premature death (select age <75) in men in 2002 – in women it was commoner long before then.
  4. The rise in liver disease deaths (type “liver” in the search box within the visualisation, and filter by age).
  5. Deaths from dementia in people over 75 now exceed deaths from chronic heart disease. For example between 2001 and 2003 there were 116,000 deaths from chronic heart disease, and around 50,000 from dementia. Between 2010 and 2012, chronic CHD deaths had fallen to 87,000, but dementia deaths had risen to more than 95,000 highlighting the growing impact of dementia.

If you are interested in visualisations and infographics we are hoping to set up an interest group for the public health community. Please contact Helen Shaw on if you'd like to know more.


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  1. Comment by Bren posted on

    Hello Julian,

    Thanks for this informative blog and I think the coding is so important to get right.

    I think the opportunity for people to be further involved is good too and so the work on visualisation and infographics can be aided by different views.

    Best wishes,