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What Has Caused Every Human Death?

Michael Pollick
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Contrary to popular belief, human death is more of a process than a singular event. We often ascribe the cause of death to a condition or illness or trauma, but in reality, the final cause of every human death is a condition called cerebral hypoxia or cerebral ischemia. To put it simply, all human death has been the direct result of oxygen deprivation to the brain cells.

Cerebral hypoxia is rarely mentioned as a cause of human death, outside of specific traumas such as drowning or suffocation. When doctors speak of causes of human death, they often refer to the conditions which led to the deprivation of oxygen. The causes of death are often listed in a specific order of events. A cancer patient's cause of death may be listed as cerebral hypoxia, caused by pulmonary edema, caused by pervasive lung cancer. It may be acceptable to say a patient's death was caused by cancer or heart disease or severe trauma, but the real death is caused by complications of those conditions.

The function of the body's circulatory and respiratory system is to deliver a fresh supply of oxygen and nutrients to all of the cells, but the brain is an especially needy organ. The brain requires nearly a full 25% of the body's blood supply to function normally. When a disease compromises the blood's ability to deliver oxygen, the body begins to prioritize which organs receive the remaining healthy cells. As a disease progresses, the brain is often the last major organ besides the heart to feel the effects of the compromised blood cells.

Even a human death caused by sudden trauma is ultimately a case of cerebral hypoxia. The loss of blood caused by a bullet or knife wound reduces the amount of oxygen reaching the brain. If this proper balance is not restored, the heart and lungs may fail and the brain will literally begin to suffocate. After several minutes of total oxygen deprivation, the brain may not be able to recover any meaningful function. The autonomic system controlling the heart and lungs fails next, leading to the ultimate cause of all human death – oxygen deprivation of the brain cells.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon991123 — On May 28, 2015

Cerebral hypoxia does cause the vast majority of deaths, but the author is missing some causes. The key is in thinking about what oxygen actually does in the body. Why do humans need oxygen? It's so that the electron transport chain can function properly (electrons passed down through cellular mechanisms, finally going to oxygen to create water). However, there are some poisons that prevent the electron transport chain from functioning. The most notable one is cyanide. It stops the electron transport chain from functioning. There is oxygen there, but it is unable to accept electrons because the electrons are blocked at Complex IV. So saying that cerebral hypoxia is the cause of death is actually not completely accurate (but is 99 percent accurate).

By anon958137 — On Jun 25, 2014

Oxygen deprivation, oxygen deprivation (due to disease), oxygen deprivation (due to death) and cerebral hypoxia are the main causes of death. That, and rabid honey badger attacks.

By anon191040 — On Jun 27, 2011

No, no, no! I've heard this a million times. Do you think someone who was blown up really died from lack of oxygen to the brain?

By Mammmood — On May 15, 2011

Now you know why patients can be kept alive in comas for so long. Basically they’re just pumping oxygen into the bloodstream to keep them alive. The problem is the other parts of the body may deteriorate, like muscle tissue and so forth. It does kind of give you a renewed respect for the wonder of the human brain in a way.

By nony — On May 15, 2011

@David09 - I had a friend who almost died from a brain aneurism. It was quite a shock because he was in college at the time and we both had no idea how something like that could happen. He recovered fortunately, but it was strange that the doctors couldn’t figure out the cause of the attack. He was in otherwise perfect health before the incident.

By David09 — On May 14, 2011

@MrMoody - On the radio they're running these constant ads about transient ischemic stroke or a TIA. Basically it’s a mini-stroke, so small in fact that people are barely aware they’ve had the stroke.

They feel fine after a few minutes. However, you should see the doctor right away (according to the announcements) because these TIA attacks could be markers for real and more serious strokes further down the line.

By MrMoody — On May 11, 2011

@anon24066 - I don't know the different types of ailments, but I do know that these types of ailments result from the same condition in the end, a lack of oxygen to the brain. I think doctors have various severities of ischemia that they refer to. For example, a localized hypoxia will only affect part of the brain and potentially damage that part as well.

There are other types of oxygen deprivation which affect the whole brain. Some of these are just worse than others. General oxygen deprivation from working in high altitudes for example will just cause fainting. In other situations the patient will die.

By anon24066 — On Jan 07, 2009

i heard that people only die from one of 4 ways: oxygen deprivation, disease...i have forgotten the other two, what are they?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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