By JOHN ROBERTSON
THE BIGGEST killers in Shetland are cancer and circulatory system problems such as heart disease and stroke which caused more than half the islands’ 209 deaths last year.
Sixty-two deaths (30 per cent of the total) were due to circulatory problems while cancer claimed 43 people (21 per cent), according to figures from the General Register Office for Scotland.
There is a popular belief in Shetland that an unusually high incidence of cancer exists here but the death rate last year was higher in Orkney at 30 per cent and in the Western Isles at nearly 27 per cent. Taking another Scottish rural area at random (Dumfries and Galloway) the cancer death rate there was 28 per cent.
Shetland’s director of public health Sarah Taylor believes Shetland’s younger population and its smaller number of smokers are the main reasons why cancer deaths were lower.
She said the single most common cause of cancer is still smoking. Because Shetland is better off than Orkney or the Western Isles she said the health authorities expect there to be fewer smokers and fewer cancer deaths, which is the case borne out by the statistics.
Shetland also has a relatively young population compared to many places, such as the Western Isles, and where there is a higher proportion of old people in a community the number of deaths from cancer will be higher. “If we’ve got a younger population we’re bound to have fewer cancers because cancer happens more as you get older.”
Discussing the statistics with The Shetland Times, Dr Taylor dismissed notions that Shetland had any particular trends in causes of death that stood out as different. “You are most likely to die here of the same as you are most likely to die of in other places.”
The 43 deaths from cancer, or malignant neoplasms, last year included five men and two women with lung-related cancer, five women with breast cancer, three men with prostate cancer, five men with cancer of the oesophagus (throat), two men with cancer of the colon, two men and two women with cancer of the rectum or anus, one case of cancer of the pancreas, one of cancer in the larynx or voicebox and one of bladder cancer.
Two common causes of death which have nothing to do with our health are women falling and men getting caught up in transport accidents. Five of the seven fatalities from falls last year were women. Bad falls are common among elderly people and may often have been preventable. Transport accidents killed seven men but no women.
All together such “external causes” did for 22 people, mostly men, in 2007, accounting for 10.5 per cent of all deaths. Seventeen were classed as accidents. Dr Taylor said: “Our message would be there are things we can do to prevent occupational accidents and also falls at home.”
Six people died in suicides although two of those were officially classified as “events of undetermined intent”. Five were men.
Three people succumbed to infectious diseases although nobody died of HIV, hepatitis, MRSA, tuberculosis or infectious meningitis. The three deaths were down to what Dr Taylor called “other infections” which had probably not been identified specifically. She said there had been no Aids-related deaths in Shetland during her eight years in post. Respiratory illnesses made off with 17 people, including 11 to pneumonia and chest infections but none to flu. Four died from diseases of the skin, muscles and tissue and four more from diseases of the genitourinary system.
Twenty-two people, 16 of them women, died of mental and behavioural disorders, which Dr Taylor said was mainly dementia which is higher among females because they live longer. A man and a woman died of alcohol-related mental and behavioural disorders and another pair had drug-related mental disorders. Three people died of diseases of the nervous system and the sense organs.
Diseases of the digestive system killed eight, which included three men with chronic liver disease, which Dr Taylor said was not necessarily due to alcohol. She said Shetland’s figures for alcohol-related deaths were not noticeably different to other places. The highest figures are found in urban areas.