Doctor Decoded: Morbidity vs. Mortality

These words are frequently misused.

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When you hear the word morbid, you might think of Halloween, crime scene reports, or creepy Netflix documentaries of serial killers. It’s a word that definitely carries a dark connotation. As a result, if you hear your doctor mention “morbidities” linked to your health condition, your first thought might be to panic. Is your life at risk?

Take a deep breath: Morbidity does not refer to death. This is a common misconception. In fact, the root word morbid actually comes from the Latin morbus, meaning “disease." However, that’s probably not how you use it today.

To put it simply, morbidity refers to an illness, and it has nothing to do with death. Morbidity is a broad term, so it could include anything from a concussion to cancer. 

More commonly, you’ll probably hear the word comorbidity, which means having two or more conditions at once. For example, depression is a common comorbidity of fibromyalgia (meaning lots of people with fibromyalgia also have depression), and diabetes is a common comorbidity of polycystic ovary syndrome (meaning lots of people with PCOS also have type 2 diabetes). 

On the other hand, mortality refers to death. It might refer to death caused by an illness or injury, or a death by “natural causes.”

Both words are primarily used in statistics. For example, here are two statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • The morbidity rate of diabetes in the United States is 15 percent among adults aged 20 and older.
  • Oklahoma has the highest mortality rate of heart disease in the U.S.

Got more questions about disease lingo?