VIP’s (Very Important Patients): How did they die in ’08 ?

On December 31, the Media once again recounted all of the wars, earthquakes, divorces, births, rapes, sporting records …. Inevitably, a long list of famous persons will have passed on: most “after a long illness,” “suddenly” or “of natural causes.”
427 famous folk died of specified misfortunes in 2008. For the purpose of this research, “famous” is defined as “well recognized by the general public at large.”

Cancer was recorded as the reason for death in 38.9% of notable deaths, while heart attack or stroke accounted for 16.7%.
7.1% died of pneumonia and 6.2% vehicular accidents (half of these related to automobiles).
3.1% were murdered and 3.3% committed suicide.
An additional 9.4% succumbed when their liver, lungs, kidneys or heart “failed”; while 6.6% died because their brains did likewise (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, etc).
During the past two decades, a small number of fatal conditions have continued to account for most deaths among the famous and infamous; however, the relative ranking of some diseases appears to be changing.
A cause of death was specified for 4,652 VIP’s during 1990 to 2008.

The most obvious change has been the fact that people rarely die of AIDS any more.
287 famous persons are known to have contracted AIDS.
172 have died of the disease since 1989, but only 20 since 1999.
In contrast, the contribution of cancer to famous death increased significantly during the same period.
Cancer accounted for 25.7% of VIP obits in 1990, and 35.8% in 2008.
In fact, throughout all of history, 2,708 famous persons have died of cancer.
91% of these deaths have occurred since 1900, 87% since 1950, 56% since 1990 … and 5.8% during the single year, 2008 !

Of course, “cancer” is not a single disease. The nature of fatal tumors was specified in 65% of cancer obits. During 1990 to 2008, the relative proportion of fatal lung and brain cancers has remained fairly constant. The contribution of breast and hematological malignancy (leukemia and lymphoma) has declined, while prostate and colon tumors have increased accordingly.
Cancer of the pancreas, a relatively unfamiliar tumor, is actually more common than breast, prostate or colon cancer as a cause of death in this population.


We should not assume that VIP-death reflects mortality trends among the general population. Indeed, famous persons are “not like the rest of us.” Many follow a life style which might invite medical misfortune, while enjoying access to excellent medical facilities. Thus, an analysis of mortality in this group might not represent the incidence of nonfatal diseases. In any case, diagnoses which we read in obituaries are often based on speculation or tend to stress the more sensational misfortunes of famous people.  This and much more on the new IPhone app = VIPatients.