When something unusual occurs, we may wonder out loud, “What are the odds?” As it turns out, when it comes to how people die, we can determine what the odds are of certain types of death for an entire population.
We don’t mean to be morbid, but the truth is, everyone dies eventually. Perhaps you’re afraid of dying in an airplane crash or from a terrorist attack, or maybe because of a lightning strike. According to the CDC, about 2.6 million people died during 2014 in the U.S. That’s about 824 persons per 100,000 in the population.
Remember that these odds are enormous generalizations across all ages and health conditions. For example, you do not necessarily have high odds of dying from cancer if you don’t have certain genetic or lifestyle risk factors—or if you die young from an accident. (Most cancers happen to us when we live a long time.)
What We Aren’t Worrying About
There are many causes of death, and some of them don’t worry us as much as they probably should. What kills a large number of us is disease and addiction. Judging from the way some of us treat our bodies, we probably aren’t worried enough about the following causes of death. The lifetime odds of dying (2016 figures) are:
- Cancer: 1 in 6 (#1)
- Heart disease: 1 in 7 (#2)
- Chronic lower respiratory disease: 1 in 27 (#3)
- Suicide: 1 in 91 (#4)
- Opioid pain killers: 1 in 109 (#6).
These five often-preventable causes of death are the top killers in the United States. Together, cancer and heart disease kill 45 percent of all persons who die from diseases and trauma.
How many of us think about our risk of dying in a motor vehicle accident before we get in the car? Probably not many; otherwise, we might never go anywhere. The lifetime odds of dying for the next eleven causes of death are:
- Motor vehicle crashes: 1 in 102 (#5)
- Fall: 1 in 119 (#7)
- Gun assault: 1 in 285 (#8)
- Pedestrian accident: 1 in 561 (#9)
- Motorcycle accident: 1 in 846 (#10)
- Drowning: 1 in 1,086 (#11)
- Fire/smoke: 1 in 1,506 (#12)
- Choking on food: 1 in 3,138 (#13)
- On a bicycle: 1 in 4,050 (#14)
- Gun discharge, accidental: 1 in 8,305 (#15)
- Sunstroke: 1 in 8,976 (#16).
Rarer Ways to Die
You may not have seen on these lists the cause of death that concerns you most. (How many of us worry about sunstroke as a cause of death? And yet it’s more common than dying on an airplane or being hit by lightning.) The odds are with us when it comes to certain causes of fatalities:
- Stings (bees, wasps, and hornets): 1 in 54,093 (#19)
- Catastrophic storm: 1 in 62,288 (#21)
- Lightning: 1 in 114,195 (#22)
- Dog attack: 1 in 132,614 (#23)
- Rail passenger: 1 in 178,741 (#24)
- Airplane passenger: 1 in 205,552 (#25).
Take heart if you are concerned about terrorism. Your odds of dying in a terrorist attack in the U.S. from 2001 through 2017 were 1 in 1.6 million during any one of those years. Those odds are estimated to be the same as dying from an asteroid hitting your geographic region.
It’s natural to be afraid of encountering a situation that ends in death, but fear can be a positive force, alerting us to possible danger so we can avoid it. Fear can also help us react to danger more quickly. But worrying about the ways of dying that carry very high odds can mean we underestimate the risks of what is more likely to kill us. Knowing the odds can help us live healthier—and maybe longer—lives. If you take care of yourself, maybe you’ll beat the odds.