Betty White’s agent says the actress “died peacefully in her sleep at her home” of “natural causes.” Here’s what that term means.
Betty White fans were saddened when news broke that the iconic actress had died on New Year’s Eve, just a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday. Rumors quickly surfaced that The Golden Girls star died from complications of a COVID-19 booster shot–but now her agent is trying to quash those rumors.
Social media posts claim that White had received a COVID-19 vaccine booster on December 28, with a fabricated quote that reads, “‘Eat healthy and get all your vaccines. I just got boosted today.’ – Betty White, Dec. 28th, 2021.” The “quote” has turned up on Facebook and Twitter, according to reports from the Associated Press, and it has led people to think that her death might be related to the shot.
In response to the rumor, White’s agent and friend, Jeff Witjas, told PEOPLE that the actress didn’t get her booster shot on December 28. “Betty died peacefully in her sleep at her home,” he said in a statement. “People are saying her death was related to getting a booster shot three days earlier but that is not true. She died of natural causes. Her death should not be politicized — that is not the life she lived.”
Witjas also directly addressed the fake quote, saying, “She never said that regarding the booster. Betty died of natural causes. She did not have the booster three days before she died.”
So the booster rumors are false. But you still might be wondering about the “died of natural causes” part of Witjas’s statement. The term is used a lot when people die at an old age, but what does it mean, exactly? Here’s how experts explain it–not for White’s death, in particular, but for the term in general.
It’s important to point out upfront that “dying of natural causes” isn’t a medical term, Sarah Reuss, MD, a pathologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Health. “It’s more of a term used to communicate with people outside the medical field,” she says. “A lot of times, what we use to talk to each other [in the medical field] doesn’t make sense to people outside the field, so we have a lot of terms to help people outside the medical field better understand us.” Usually, dying from natural causes is interpreted as “nothing acute happened,” Dr. Reuss explains.
While there isn’t necessarily a set definition for what constitutes “natural causes,” Erin McNeely, MD, an internal medicine physician at Spectrum Health in Michigan, tells Health that physicians can generally agree on what it means. “‘Natural causes’ is a really wide, wide term that can be anything that wasn’t an accident or affected by a force,” she says. “We don’t pin a death from natural causes on one thing like a heart attack or stroke. Things just sort of stop.”
But there is some nuance here, and technically things like heart attacks, cancer, and infections could be considered “natural” given that they do happen to people without any outside force, Lewis Nelson, MD, chair of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Health. “It basically means that the death was not due to a ‘non-natural’ event, such as suicide or homicide,” he says.
However, end-of-life researcher Christopher Kerr, MD, PhD, chief medical officer and chief executive officer for Hospice & Palliative Care Buffalo, tells Health that the term is usually used when someone dies of old age. “There’s usually an absence of overriding disease,” he says. “There isn’t a driving catabolic state–it’s really dying in totality, and a general progression of loss of functional strength, energy, and appetite over time.”
Dr. McNeely compares dying of natural causes to a car shutting down after years of use. “The car rusts out, the engine stops, and things stop working over time,” she says. “Your body eventually just slows down and stops. Your pancreas, heart, and lungs stop working. It’s essentially multi-organ failure.”
When “natural causes” shows up on a death certificate, it usually means that the person wasn’t diagnosed with any one health condition, like heart failure, or didn’t die in an accident, Dr. McNeely explains. Coroners typically come to this conclusion in the absence of an autopsy or known cause of death, Dr. Nelson says. But “when there are questions about the cause or manner of death, an autopsy along with other testing provides the needed information to help improve the determination of the cause and manner of death,” he says.
Still, as Dr. McNeely points out, “we usually don’t do autopsies on significantly older people.”
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