Oscar Winning Actor Karl Malden dies at age 97

Malden (born Mladen Sekulovich) was an Oscar-winning actor known for his numerous movie roles, including A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, The Streets of San Francisco (a popular TV series co-starring Michael Douglas) and for his American Express commercials which popularized the expression, “Don’t leave home without it.” He died at his Los Angeles home at the age of 97. The cause of death is reported as “natural causes.”

“Natural causes” is a frequently given cause of death – but what specifically does it mean? Specifying a cause of death is required by law in all states. Death certification provides public health statistics and prevents cover-ups of murder. A death certificate requires two things:

  • A cause of death: a disease or injury directly related to the death (such as heart attack, AIDS, kidney failure) or the circumstances of death (gun shot wound, hanging)
  • The manner of death: natural,accidental, suicide, homicide, unknown, pending

Natural causes is a loosely-defined term used by coroners describing death when the cause of death was a naturally occurring disease process, or is not apparent given medical history orcircumstances. As long as a physician familiar with the patient agrees to sign the death certificate, no autopsy in required.

At Mr. Malden’s age, the most likely cause of death is heart failure. Even when a patient has no heart problems or other conditions, a body’s key cells and tissues can just wear down. It’s not so much a disease process, as a natural biological condition – the body just doesn’t last forever.

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Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

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