What we usually mean when we say that someone has ‘died of old age’ is that they have died as the result of a combination of factors that might not be immediately obvious.
As we age, the chance that we will suffer from a range of medical conditions increases. Our immune system becomes weaker, and our cells don’t work so well.
Because cells are weaker, they are less able to cope with disorders or disease.
Conditions such as heart disease, cancer, or a neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease or dementia, become harder for our bodies to fight as our cells age.
Disease affects how well our body can function, and this weakness can lead to loss of mobility, or trouble swallowing, greater risk of falls, or increased likelihood of infection.
These complications from conditions that accumulate in old age are often what actually causes a person to die.
For example, a person with dementia may have trouble swallowing. They might inhale a small particle of food, get pneumonia, and that pneumonia will be their eventual cause of death.
So, people do not die just from old age.
In the past, doctors would often write on the death certificate that a person had died of ‘natural causes’ or ‘old age’.
But these days a more specific cause of death is required on death certificates.
For example, a person who died of a heart attack may have the cause of death listed at ‘cardiac arrest’, and the underlying cause listed as ‘heart disease’. In the past, this may have simply been recorded as ‘old age’.
But sometimes it’s not easy to identify exactly what the case of death was, particularly if the person is very elderly or suffering from a number of conditions.
In these cases, terms such as ‘multiple organ failure’ or ‘debility’ are sometimes listed as cause of death.
For very old people, doctors might be less likely to conduct thorough investigations to determine the exact cause of death, as they would for a young person.