Ever watch those YouTube videos where somebody will take a topic or piece of music and go through X levels of complexity, from simplest to most sophisticated? Malaguena, as played by a beginner, intermediate, advanced, pro? Or donuts as made by a newbie, an experienced amateur, and a chef? How about we do that for risk of death?
We’ll leave off the Level 0 analysis, by far the most common – basically, I don’t understand risk and therefore will dismiss risk analysis as unimportant nit-picking, and simply take whatever steps everybody else in my social group is taking alleged to reduce whatever risk my social group decides needs reducing. (1) We will instead start with rational risk analysis.
Note: Even though the approaches proposed are, except for the first and last levels, seriously flawed when considering an individual’s risk, it is sobering that, even as flawed as they are, any attempt to understand risk of death dispassionately in our current state is an improvement. Onward:
How To Understand Your Risk of Death – 5 Levels:
Level I – Everybody dies. You are at 100% risk of death. No getting around it. Your death, my death, anybody’s death, is as certain as taxes. When, not if.
Level II – Risk of dying this year, as a member of the human race: is somewhat less than 1%, or 1 in a hundred. This means that, across the population of the planet as a whole, something less than 1 out of 100 people walking the earth or born during a given year is going to be dead before the year is out. You can see this in, for example, UN death rate data, or just applying common sense: by age 100, just about everybody is dead; therefore, the annual death rate for everybody taken together could plausibly be a smidge under 1% (It’s more complicated than that, to be sure, but in a very simple, homogenous population, getting neither bigger nor smaller, nor older nor younger year over year, it would roughly be right.)
Pro Tip: when you see very accurate numbers – not a reasonable-ish claim like ‘about 0.9%’ but a remarkably accurate-sounding numbers like ‘0.8762%’ for estimates based on huge, difficult-to-count numbers, like world population, the klaxons of your BS detectors, if working properly, should be firing on 11. You get a death rate by dividing raw numbers of deaths by a population estimate. It would be surprising, given the people, methods, and motivations involved, if world population estimates were accurate within, say, a billion people. It’s not easy counting up a population – look at how involved the US Census is. Death counts seem much more simple – but are they? In, say, South Sudan or Mongolia or the Amazon rain forests? People don’t just die off-grid, as it were? Most other nations cannot or do not put the sort of effort into it the US does, and have reasons, often, for fudging. Three or 4 decimal places of accuracy might be plausible in the US, maybe, but the world? No. All those decimal places are pretty good indicator that somebody is trying to snow you, to keep you from thinking about how much uncertainty surrounds their numbers.
Level III – Risk of dying this year, as an American: your (and my) chances of dying this year simply by dint of being American is, according to the UN, about .8977%. Just about 9 out of every thousand of us in the US are expected to die in 2021. Let’s blow those numbers out to see some totals: using the last census count of something like 332 million Americans, looks like right about 3 million Americans are expected to die in 2021 in the normal course of things (See: Level I). That does not include any effects of COVID, by the way.
Level IV – Risk of dying by age: The astute observer will have noticed that death does not come at random, usually, but rather that some people are a lot more likely to drop dead than others over any short period of time, a year, say. Age is a huge part of this, such an astute observer will observe: young people tend to think they are immortal, which is a fairly reasonable or at least understandable position, given how few of their contemporaries die in a given year. They may know that one kid who died in a car wreck, or some poor kid who killed herself, but these seem pretty special cases – *I* drive good! I don’t want to kill myself! Old people, on the other hand, see their contemporaries increasingly dropping as they age, until it finally gets them.
And the data, as collected by insurance companies for a couple centuries now, bears this out. If you make it out of infancy and don’t have a crippling disease, you are all but guaranteed to make it to 50 – over 95% of American women and 92% of American men survive to age 50. It’s only about age 56 for men and 63 for women that the chance of death per year approaches the UN overall estimated US death rate of 0.8977%.
The obvious starting point, then, for any understanding of your risk of death is: how old are you? If you’re under 50, in general, it’s very low, but then starts slowly climbing until, finally, everybody is dead – around age 110 or so. We all seem to know this and take it for granted, except when we don’t.
Level V – How healthy are you? Here’s the bottom line. Are you healthy? Then you have very little annual risk of death above the background ‘stuff happens’ level. That is not a very high level, but is never zero. Let’s look at an actuarial table, for example, this one based off the Social Security website (relevant numbers included at the bottom of this post). Remember, this is the chance of death lumping all people of the same age together regardless of health. In reality, your or my or anybody’s chance of dying in a particular year has a lot more to do with overall health first of all, and risky personal behaviors second, than age directly.
Most people get sick and die, usually, but not always, when they’re old. But it is not age, per se, that kills them. Old age eventually leads to the human body wearing out and shutting down, on the one hand, and an increase in diseases as the body weakens and cannot fight them off so well, on the other. It’s perfectly useful to say people die of old age when we are describing the outcome of this shutting down and weakening. Clearly, however, being old – being 80 or 70 or 65 – isn’t the cause of death, as plenty of people those ages are vigorous. Age is a proxy for health, useful as a generalization, not so useful in individual cases.