Public Safety

What Messages Do the Dead Leave for the Living?

Video by Andy Tolley

Deaths investigated by the San Diego County Medical Examiner provide lessons for the living by tracking trends, such as the increasing number of deaths caused by accidental falls, the growing prominence of heroin deaths among young people, and a decline in motor vehicle accidents that coincides with the rise in gas prices.

One alarming trend is that heroin was the most common substance found in drug/medication deaths of those under the age of 30.

“This included seven teenage deaths, one of which was due to heroin withdrawals,” said Dr. Jonathan Lucas, Deputy Medical Examiner. “In this age group, that is more than the last ten years combined.”

The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office performed 2,718 autopsies and external examinations last year. Other interesting findings among those cases include:

  • The leading cause of death remained cardiovascular disease
  • The next most common cause was drug and medication-related deaths, which included a spike in deaths caused either by heroin and/or methamphetamine, and a continued rise in prescription medications
  • Accidental falls moved up to the third leading cause and with the aging population the trend will likely grow
  • Suicides dropped to the fourth spot but are still up compared to the first half of the last decade
  • Motor vehicle deaths have shown a marked decrease since 2009
  • The number of homicides is the lowest in 20 years

The statistics are included in the Medical Examiner’s annual report, which also provides insight into the work of the office, from response at the initial investigation, to notifying next of kin, and performing autopsies and toxicology tests. It also highlights the office’s contributions to local brain and SIDS research, its assistance with organ and tissue donation, and its contribution to regional committees such as the domestic violence fatality review team.

View the report (PDF, 6MB)

Tracy DeFore is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact