Reclusive legend J.D. Salinger expires

Legendary author, Jerome David Salinger died yesterday of natural causes in his home in Cornish, New Hampshire were he lived in self-exile for decades. Mr. Salinger was 91. His most famous novel, The Catcher in the Rye, was required reading in high school English courses for generations of students.

Natural causes is a frequently given cause of death, particularly in the elderly, 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 pieces of information:

  • 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

In practice, “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 or circumstances. As long as a physician familiar with the patient agrees to sign the death certificate, no autopsy in required.

At Mr. Salinger’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.

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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