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Should We Talk About How You’re Going to Die?

So I’ve done the research and it seems fairly conclusive: every single one of us is going to die. Sure — we’re living longer than ever (the number of centenarians is supposedly going to grow eightfold by 2050) — but let’s be clear: even if you’re one of the lucky ones who gets to blow 100 birthday candles out, your life is still going to call it curtains on you.

We don’t know when we’re going to bite the dust, of course, which makes life one big game of Russian roulette every morning we wake up not dead yet. “Could today be the day?” we wonder at ourselves in the mirror, hoping the answer is no. (Fun fact: your probability of dying increases exponentially with age after 25!) But we’re not here to talk about when you’re going to die; we’re here to talk about how.

Wait, why should you care about how you’re going to die?

I have two reasons (and it’s not just because of my morbid fascination with death) (although that has a lot to do with it):

  • Some causes of death are preventable. Learning you might be careening towards a cardiovascular catastrophe, for example (because odds are looking favorable that you totally are — you’ll see below), might make you think twice about adding bacon to your burger every time (*heavy sigh*). Grasping the odds of dying in a car crash might inspire you to wear your seatbelt. Realizing that diabetes is the #8 cause of death might motivate you to lose that “winter weight” (accumulated from the last 17 winters) and manage your condition better. When you know better, you do better (paraphrased from the wise Maya Angelou).Centenarian Cake
  • Death forces us to be careful. This is my real reason for writing this, and it’s the undercurrent of why I wake up and write anything at all. Getting in touch with how finite we are helps us appreciate our aliveness. “Remembering we must die,” (that catchy old Latin phrase called memento mori) encourages us to stop taking our hours and days and Mondays and years for granted — to live like we have something to lose. How better to remember the pesky certainty of death than to study it and make it vividly real? It’s time for statistics, friends!

How you’ll likely shuffle off this mortal coil.

Let’s start with a pop quiz.
From the list below, which causes of death are included in the “Most Common Ways to Die in the US” list?

  • Car crash
  • Acts of terrorism
  • Poisoning
  • Sketchy WIFI
  • Heart disease
  • Drug overdose
  • Murder
  • COVID-19
  • Cataclysmic storm (can I encourage us all to use the word ‘cataclysmic’ more often?)
  • Stroke
  • Plane crash
  • Drowning
  • Cancer
  • Unrequited love

Here are the answers…

The leading causes of death in the US for 2020 are as follows:

Leading causes of death

Wondering why you failed this quiz miserably? It’s likely because there’s a massive discrepancy between the ways we actually die and the ways the media sensationalizes how we die. We frequently hear about violent forms of death like terrorism, homicide, and suicide… because if it bleeds it leads, right? A 2016 study noted the following:

“When it comes to the media coverage on causes of death, violent deaths account for more than two-thirds of coverage in the New York Times and The Guardian but account for less than 3 percent of the total deaths in the US.”

So let’s talk more about what’s likely (and unlikely, just for fun) to put your eventual demise in perspective.

Stats and unsolicited commentary on how you might die:

  • Heart disease: this one wins the Grim Reaper’s MVP award. In 2020, one in every four people who died in the US keeled over from cardiovascular disease — every 36 seconds, to be morbidly exact. You know what’s surprising, though? Even though deaths from heart disease are so prevalent, they account for less than 3% of media coverage and Google searches. This really is a silent killer… no one’s talking about it because it’s boring to report that Reg from Dayton, Ohio died of a heart attack last night. Are you living a “heart disease is in my future” kind of lifestyle? Might you need to go for that long-overdue annual physical, and maybe get your clogged arteries looked at?
  • Cancer: it is, in fact, a real motherfucker. Around 1,660 people die from cancer each day in the US, 22% of which are from lung cancer.
  • COVID-19: our modern-day Plague has caused Americans to lose more years of life than to all accidents lumped together in a typical year (5,450,000 potential years of life were snuffed from the lives of people who died from COVID; I wrote about it here in the early days when it was just a paltry 2,500,000 years of life lost).
  • Unintentional injuries:
      • Drug poisoning is the biggie in this category; 93,331 people unintentionally overdosed on drugs in 2020. For a person born in 2018, their odds of dying from drug poisoning in their lifetime is 1 in 71. Opioids were involved in over 70% of overdose deaths in 2019, but let’s not forget cocaine, which was a culprit in nearly 1 in 5 OD deaths.
      • Over 100 people die each day from motor vehicle crashes. Using a seat belt in the front seat of a passenger car can decrease your risk of dying by 45%, and yet in 2020, deaths involving drivers not wearing seat belts was up by 15%.
      • Being a pedestrian can be deadly; 6,721 people out strolling were struck and killed by drivers in 2020. (Despite a 13.2% dip in vehicle miles travelled as people hibernated throughout COVID, there was a 21% increase in pedestrian deaths. Why? Experts say speeding, drunk + drugged driving spiked during the pandemic.) Maybe it’s safer to never leave the house again. Just kidding! Maybe just wear reflective clothing at night?
      • 3,704 people died from fires in 2019, a 24% increase since 2010. Cooking causes 50% of all residential fires, so do you have an extinguisher handy in your kitchen?
      • 11 people drown to death every day (80% of which are male, usually involving boats and beer).
      • Experts predict there will be 7 fall deaths every hour by 2030 (why are we falling 30% more than we did in 2007? Who’s pushing us? Does 20/20 need to do an expose on this?)
  • Suicide: Firearms account for half of all suicides, followed by suffocation/ hanging, and then poisoning (i.e.: alcohol or drug overdoses). 44,834 souls who took their own lives in the US in 2020. Let’s promptly move on.
  • Homicide: there were 21,570 murders in 2020, and for perspective, the risk of dying in a motor vehicle accident was almost 12 fatalities per 100,000, close to twice the risk of becoming a homicide victim.
      • Your odds of being killed by a serial killer (something I think about a lot because I watch all the shows on these guys and I’m not just talking about Dexter — I mean the documentaries where they all but ask the convicted sociopaths what human flesh tastes like) are slim. Less than 1% of murders are of the serial kind, so only ~150 people die this way each year.
      • Murder-adjacent, let’s talk about getting shot to death. Firearm-related deaths tallied 39,707 in 2019… 80% of which were unintentional. 109 people die from a gunshot-related injury every day.
      • Sidebar: Am I the only one who thinks (a lot) about getting murdered? Does anyone else brace themselves for a murderer around every corner? No? Okay, me neither.
  • 253 people died from natural disasters, including earthquakes, landslides, drought, wildfires, storms, and flooding. Tornados kill about 60 people per year, and despite this, the number one item on my Bucket List is to see one in real life (i.e.: not just in a Helen Hunt movie). I would die happy if it happened to be fatal.
  • The odds of getting hit by lightning (and not living to tell about it) in a lifetime is about 1 in 180,746, with 17 people dying this way in 2020. (This will sound insensitive to the 17 families who lost their loved ones, but wouldn’t it be cool to die from this cause? Your family and friends would be so amused [after their enormous grieving period] to tell the “Yolanda was hit by lightning” story for years to come.)
  • Fatal shark attacks: 12 in 2020 (your odds of being killed in a shark attack are about 1 in 3.75 million in your lifetime. In other words, it’s possible.)
  • Death by snake bite: 5 people go this way each year. Sucks to be them.
  • This post was about causes of death in the US. If you’re interested in the top 10 causes of death around the globe, check this out from the WHO.
  • Check out the interactive chart called “How You Will Die” on this webpage at flowingdata.com… it’s morbidly fun. Then check out this one.
  • Who doesn’t want to see this chart (below) on the deadliest animals on earth? Mosquitos are the deadliest species, followed by us despicable homo sapiens, who kill our fair share of other humans through war, terrorism, and homicide. WE’RE WORSE THAN SNAKES.

 

Deadliest animals

 

Wheel 'o DeathSo there you have it. Not a single one of us is getting out of here alive — we get it, we get it. But grasping how we are likely to go wakes us up to productive insights like, “How might I prevent some of these diseases from taking root?”.  Getting clear on the ways you’re likely to go might jolt a bit of “I’m going to savor the flavor of life now before I do in fact get bit by a snake to death” kind-of-thinking. Reflect on your likely demise. Reflect on your unlikely demise. Let the certainty of the end inspire you to live before you die.

Jodi Wellman

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