Sunday, January 15, 2006

death, definition of

In the past it was customary to attribute death to "natural causes," which were thought to bring about a termination of life as if by unavoidable destiny-with no particular cause specified. Since the early 1900s, however, death has no longer been thought to happen unavoidably without specific cause. Today physicians who fill out death certificates usually must enter a specific disease or condition that caused the death, even though there has been some evidence very recently of a return to a generic term like' 'natural causes" when a variety of health problems led to a death. In spite of the long precedent in recording a cause, or causes, for death, enormous advances of medical science in the last 30 to 50 years have made the medical meaning of the term death itself increasingly ambiguous. Death used to be signaled when the vital functions of a person, especially breathing and circulation of the blood, had ceased.
Today, however, dramatic progress in the development of medical apparatus and treatments required to support life have made it possible to maintain body functions even after mental functions have ceased irreversibly. In order to deal with these problems, a Harvard University Ad Hoc Committee on the Examination of the Definition of Brain Death in the late 1960s proposed a new definition of death, which has obtained increasing acceptance: the criterion of death has been reached when the recorded brain function has ceased for a 24-hour period. In recent years an additional criterion has been added-death occurs when circulation within the brain, recorded by one of the modern medical techniques, has ceased.
Kart, C. S.; Metress, E. S.; and Metress, J. F. Aging and Health: Biologic and Social Perspectives. Menlo Park, Calif.: Addison-Wesley, 1978.

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