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Death and Dying

Medicalization Of Dying, Cultural Diversity

Dying and death are profound aspects of the human experience. Social science research documents the fact that defining someone as "dying" is a social process. Although critical medical conditions certainly have a physiological basis, disease states are given significance through interpretation (Muller and Koenig). Perceptions that dying has begun and the meanings associated with those perceptions are contingent on a range of such social and cultural factors as the state of biological knowledge, the value of prolonging life or accepting finitude, the relative roles of religion, science, and medicine in creating meaning in everyday life, and personal familiarity with the dying transition. Dying today is shaped by particular notions of therapeutic possibility as well as ideals about approaching the end of life. The distinguishing feature about the process of dying today is that, to some degree, it can be negotiated and controlled depending on the preferences of the dying person, the goals of particular medical specialties, the organizational features of technology-intensive medical settings, and the presence and wishes of family members. It is impossible to think about death today except in language informed by institutionalized medicine.

A century ago, the leading causes of death in the United States were communicable diseases, especially influenza, tuberculosis, and diphtheria, and more than half of deaths occurred among individuals age fourteen or younger. During the twentieth century average life expectancy increased and the chance of dying in childhood was greatly diminished (Quadagno). Since the Second World War, heart disease, cancer, and stroke have become the leading causes of death. In 1995 they accounted for 67 percent of deaths for persons age sixty-five and older. The fact that more people than ever before are dying in advanced age of chronic conditions creates unprecedented challenges — for individuals as they confront the dying process of relatives and friends, for the health care delivery system, and for American society as its members struggle to define and implement the idea of a "good death."

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Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 1