Visualizing Europe's demographic scars with coplots and contour plots

Int J Epidemiol. 2013 Aug;42(4):1164-76. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyt115.


We present two enhancements to existing methods for visualizing vital statistics data. Data from the Human Mortality Database were used and vital statistics from England and Wales are used for illustration. The simpler of these methods involves coplotting mean age of death with its variance, and the more complex of these methods is to present data as a contour plot. The coplot method shows the effect of the 20th century's epidemiological transitions. The contour plot method allows more complex and subtle age, period and cohort effects to be seen. The contour plot shows the effects of broad improvements in public health over the 20th century, including vast reductions in rates of childhood mortality, reduced baseline mortality risks during adulthood and the postponement of higher mortality risks to older ages. They also show the effects of the two world wars and the 1918 influenza pandemic on men of fighting age, women and children. The contour plots also show a cohort effect for people born around 1918, suggesting a possible epigenetic effect of parental exposure to the pandemic which shortened the cohort's lifespan and which has so far received little attention. Although this article focuses on data from England and Wales, the associated online appendices contain equivalent visualizations for almost 50 series of data available on the Human Mortality Database. We expect that further analyses of these visualizations will reveal further insights into global public health.

Keywords: Demography; epidemiological transition; mortality; public health; visualisation; vital statistics.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Demography / statistics & numerical data
  • England / epidemiology
  • Europe / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mortality / trends*
  • Survival Rate
  • Wales / epidemiology
  • World War I
  • World War II
  • Young Adult