The necessary role of the autopsy in cardiovascular epidemiology

Hum Pathol. 1998 Dec;29(12):1469-79. doi: 10.1016/s0046-8177(98)90018-1.


The autopsy rate in the United States today is remarkably low, with proportionally fewer autopsies for natural causes of death. Consequently, most cardiovascular epidemiology studies do not use autopsy data and rely on death certificates, medical records, questionnaires, and family interviews as sources of mortality information. These practices introduce a high degree of variability and uncertainty regarding cause of death. This review illustrates the necessity for increased use of autopsies in cardiovascular epidemiology by critically evaluating other measures of cardiovascular disease (CVD) incidence. We evaluated the literature regarding CVD as cause of death and conducted discussions with cardiologists, pathologists, and epidemiologists. No attempt was made for meta-analysis. This review shows the limited reliability of death certificates, medical records, and interviews as sources of mortality statistics. In addition, the autopsy's role in clearly indicating the presence of CVD is illustrated. The autopsy used in conjunction with medical records is the only reliable means for establishing cause of death from CVD. There is an urgent need to reassess the current dependence of statistical mortality data on death certificates and other inadequate sources of CVD incidence. Death certificates, in general, are inadequately monitored for quality control and appropriate administrative oversight. With an increase in the number of hospitals performing no autopsies to investigate cause of death, a uniform national autopsy database is needed.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autopsy*
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / mortality
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / pathology*
  • Cause of Death
  • Death Certificates
  • Diagnostic Errors
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Myocardial Infarction / epidemiology
  • Myocardial Infarction / mortality
  • Myocardial Infarction / pathology
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Survival Rate
  • United States / epidemiology