By: Cassidy Moody

A Claddagh ring has three key features; a crown to represent loyalty, two hands to represent friendship, and a heart representing love. The heart is encircled by the hands and has the crown resting on top of it, decidedly making it the centerpiece of the ring. The heart is also central to Irish culture in another way, albeit less positive than the popular Claddagh ring. Using the Cincinnati birth and death records, it was determined that heart disease and other heart ailments affected a large number of Irish Cincinnatians from 1865-1912.

Within the Cincinnati birth and death records database, there were approximately 996 records with heart-related deaths. Of those 996, 25 were studied; thirteen males and twelve females. Heart disease was the most prevalent cause of death, affecting 44% of the population studied. The second highest was valvular disease of the heart. Other causes of death seen throughout the study were heart failure, hypertrophy, organic disease of the heart, dilation of the heart, and paralysis of the heart. It is of interest to note that some of these medical terms are no longer used due to the fact that they may have been too general and have since become more specified. For example, during the 19th century ‘paralysis of the heart’ usually meant the sudden “abolition of function or of sensation,” (Flippin, 1997). In modern medical terms paralysis of the heart would most likely be referred to as sudden cardiac arrest, a condition where the heart stops beating unexpectedly which is caused by erratic electrical impulses sent to the heart. However, without the current medical knowledge held today, most physicians in the late 19th century were not far off with referring to the sudden arrest of the heart as paralysis.

After noting the initial trends within the target population, trends within the genders were observed.  For males, the most common cause of death was heart disease at 40%.  Heart failure, organic disease of the heart, and valvular disease of the heart all were second and accounted for 15% of deaths each. The male age of death ranged from 22 to 73 years old, with 62% of the deaths being at age 50 or older. The average age of death among the male population was 49 years.  In 1890, the national life expectancy was about 43 years old for males (Roser, 2017).

Heart disease was also the main cause of death for women, with it affecting 50% of the females. Yet unlike the males, there was a clear second highest cause of death and that was valvular disease of the heart. The average age at death for a woman was 53 years, slightly higher than that of males, which is interesting due to the fact that heart disease was the leading cause of death for both genders. The national life expectancy for women was 45 years old in 1890, again higher than males. One current theory is called the “jogging female heart.”  The idea is that a woman’s heart rate increases during the second half of the menstrual cycle, possibly producing the same benefits as moderate exercise (Robson, 2015). This hypothesis could account for the differences in life expectancy between males and females now, as well as in the early 19th century.

Heart disease is not something affecting Irish Cincinnatians alone. According to the Irish Heart Foundation, heart disease is currently the largest killer in Ireland with approximately 1 in 4 people dying from cardiovascular disease. This means 10,000 people will die from some sort of heart related complication.  Heart disease or cardiovascular disease is a term that encompasses heart conditions that include diseased vessels, structural problems and blood clots.  Coronary artery disease, cardiac arrest, and strokes are all considered to be types of heart disease. Tobacco use, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, and harmful use of alcohol are some of the known risk factors that can cause heart disease.

While these risk factors may have been causes for the deaths of the 25 Cincinnatians studied, heart disease was a bit harder to trace during the late 19th century because the technology was unavailable.  Cardiology did not become a specialty in medicine until the early 20th century, when the blood pressure cuff, chest x-ray, and the electrocardiogram were all invented (Harrington, 2016).  With these improvements, early diagnosis and treatments could be provided to the patient, possibly leading to a longer lifespan. Today, the Cincinnati branch of the American Heart Association holds the Heart Mini 5K Race to raise money to fight heart disease and stroke. With over 27,000 participants, it’s almost certain that some of Cincinnati’s Irish are out there walking or running to fight heart disease.


Cincinnati Birth and Death Records, 1865-1912. University of Cincinnati Digital Resource Commons,

Flippin, K. (1997, April 23). Causes of Death in the Late 19th Century mentioned in the Register of Deaths, 1893-1907. Retrieved March 24, 2017,

Irish Heart Mission and Policies. Irish Heart Foundation. Retrieved March 24, 2017,

Robson, D. (2015, October 2). Why do women live longer than men? Retrieved March 24, 2017,

Roser, M. (2016). Life Expectancy. Retrieved March 24, 2017.

What is Cardiovascular Disease? American Heart Association. Retrieved March 24, 2017,