Television crime shows have helped popularize autopsies, but in reality these postmortem exams are becoming rarer every year. Today, hospitals perform autopsies on only about 5 percent of patients who die, down from roughly 50 percent in the 1960s. That’s unfortunate, say experts, because details about the cause of death can be illuminating for both families and hospitals, even if they don’t turn up an undiagnosed ailment or other new information about the cause of death.
Kristine Johnson’s father, Nathan Johnson, developed early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and died last August, five years after having received that diagnosis at age 52. He worked as a lineman for a power company near the family home in Waterford, Conn., and had on occasion been injured by powerful jolts of electricity, says Kristine, who is 36. She hoped that an autopsy would provide some answers, possibly related to injuries he sustained on the job, that would explain why he developed Alzheimer’s at such an early age. (Most people who develop Alzheimer’s do so after age 65; only about 5 percent of cases are early-onset.)