Death Counts

A popular Twitter post fails to give important context.

Dr Eoin Clarke posted a Statista chart of death registrations in the United Kingdom “without comment”. Over 500 Twitter accounts shared the post.

This article looks at why death counts are rising. Context is crucial for statistics in public debate.

Context and Justice

Dr Eoin Clarke — posting as ‘Tory Fibs’ on Twitter — wrote:

No words added to this graphic will do it justice so it is best to post it without comment.

The image is of a Statista graph, showing UK death registrations.

Dr Clarke does not link to the Statista post. Nor does he link the relevant Office for National Statistics report. Martin Armstrong’s Statista post only states the trend:

As this infographic shows, there isn’t just an increase on the previous year to be observed though. When looking back to 1974, the falling figures towards the start of the last decade are have been rising back up rather rapidly.

For each nation, total death registrations come from:

  • England and Wales: Office for National Statistics;
  • Scotland: National Records of Scotland;
  • Northern Ireland: Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.

Standardisation, standardisation, standardisation

We can look at the 2018 death registrations report for England and Wales.

The 2018 report carries a statistician’s comment. I repeat Ben Humberstone’s comment here:

Although 2018 saw the highest number of deaths since 1999, when taking the age and size of the population into account, death rates have remained more or less stable since 2011.

Mortality rates fell slightly for males but rose slightly for females in 2018. This is likely to close the gap in life expectancy between the two.

We’re continuing to see the levelling off of mortality improvements and will understand more as we analyse this data further.

The age-standardised mortality rates has stabilised since 2011. (Source: ONS)

What are age-standardised mortality rates?

Registered death counts are influenced by the numbers of people. How many young and older people influences the number of deaths for every 100,000 people. To calculate an age-standardised mortality rate:

The ONS uses the 2013 European standard population.

Levelling off

It is important to add context to statistics, to assist readers.

Here, mortality improvements have levelled off, with a stabilised age-standardised mortality rate.

Rising death counts in the UK are due to an ageing and growing population.

Statistics need context. Data does not speak for itself.

Kate Lewis (Full Fact) has also written on this matter.

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.

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