Death Risk: Lawrence University Researcher Helps Develop Novel Tool To Calculate the Odds

APPLETON, WIS. — Whether by illness or accident, have you ever wondered what the odds are you could die within the next year?

David-Gerard.jpgA Lawrence University economist, working with the Center for the Study & Improvement of Regulation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., has helped develop a website that allows users to easily access publicly-available data and compare mortality risks based on several different categories, such as age, gender and where you live.

The site, DeathRiskRankings, not only determines the risk of dying within the next year, but it also ranks more than 60 possible causes of death, providing quick side-by-side comparisons between groups.

“Most Americans don’t have a particularly good understanding of their own mortality risks, let alone a ranking of their relevant risks,” said David Gerard, who recently joined the Lawrence University faculty as an associate professor of economics. He spent six years as the executive director of the Center for the Study & Improvement of Regulation at Carnegie Mellon.

“A rule of thumb is that your risk of dying increases exponentially, doubling about every eight years,” Gerard said. “Approximately one1 in 500 people in my cohort – 40-something white males in Wisconsin — will die in the next year. When I turn 50, the risk will be closer to 1 in 250. And for those of us that see 65, it will be about 1 in 50. The risks are higher, but I still like my chances.”

As the national debate over health care policy and reform heats up, Gerard says one of the site’s most interesting features is its ability to provide comparisons between the U.S. and Europe.

“You can really see some systematic differences between the major causes of death between us and Europeans, which begs the question what role our respective health care systems play in those differences,” said Gerard.

“As an example, for 40-year olds, a European woman has a better chance of living another 30 years than an American woman. However, American women have slightly lower risks of dying from breast cancer, but considerably higher risks of dying from heart attacks and lung cancer. This presents some interesting research questions about whether these differences stem from diagnostics and treatment or from some other causes.”

Gerard thinks the website will prove to be an effective tool in the classroom as well.

“My colleague, Paul Fischbeck, has been using this concept for years to teach his decision analysis courses,” Gerard said. “The underlying concept of the MicroMort – a one-in-a-million chance of dying – is an effective way of teaching student how to quantify risks, how regulatory policies might affect these risks, and at what cost.”

The web site is a treasure trove of interesting statistics. When it comes to dying within the year, there are dramatic differences between men and women, blacks and whites, and Americans and Europeans. Consider the following:

In the race to die first, men are the clear winners. For every age group, men have a much higher annual death risk than women. For 20-year olds, the risk is two-and-one-half to three times greater. Men are much more prone to accidents, homicides, and suicides, and the risk of dying from heart disease is always higher for men than women, peaking in the 50s when men are 2.5 times greater. However, men’s dominance is not as overwhelming with cancer deaths. Women’s cancer risks are actually higher than men’s in their 30s and 40s, but for all other ages, men are number one.

The difference between blacks and whites in the U.S. is almost as pronounced as those for men and women. For both heart disease and cancer, blacks have much higher death risk. Overall, African American in their 30s and 40s are twice as likely to die within the year as their white counterparts. There is, however, one category of death in which whites consistently exceed blacks: suicide. Whites typically have a 2-3 times greater chance of dying by suicide than blacks.

Not surprisingly, obesity-related death risks are much higher in the U.S. than in Europe. As one example, annual diabetes death risk for two 54-year females, one from Wisconsin and one from the U.K., is four times as high for the Wisconsinite than it is for the woman in England.

“There is an old saying that if you spend too much time watching for squirrels, you might just get trampled by an elephant,” says Gerard. “A lot of things can kill you. This website breaks risks into 66 different categories. But there are often dominant causes. For young people, for example, simple things like wearing a bike helmet and fastening up your seat belt can radically reduce your fatality risks.”