Background: Our goal was to assess the prevalence of common causes of death and the demographic variables in a selected population of centenarians.
Methods: The autopsy reports and medical histories of all individuals > or =100 years, dying unexpectedly out of hospital, were gathered from 42,398 consecutive autopsies, performed over a period of 18 years at the Institute of Forensic Medicine, Vienna. These records were evaluated with regard to age and sex, circumstances of death, season, time and the cause of death, as well as the presence of any other comorbidity.
Results: Forty centenarians (11 men, 29 women) were identified with a median age of 102 +/- 2.0 (range: 100-108) years. Sixty percent were described as having been healthy before death. However, an acute organic failure causing death was found in 100%, including cardiovascular diseases in 68%, respiratory illnesses in 25%, gastrointestinal disorders in 5%, and cerebrovascular disease in 2%. Additionally, centenarians suffered from several comorbidities (cardiac antecedents, neurologic disorders, liver diseases, cholecystolithiasis), which were not judged to be the cause of death.
Conclusions: Centenarians, though perceived to have been healthy just prior to death, succumbed to diseases in 100% of the cases examined. They did not die merely "of old age." The 100% post mortem diagnosis of death as a result of acute organic failure justifies autopsy as a legal requirement for this clinically difficult age group.