The odds are always good (that you’re going to die)

I was listening to this song on the car the other day. It’s a pretty good song. Give it a listen:

httpvh://youtu.be/LiTucKt-gM4

One of the big components of my work as an epidemiologist has been to calculate the odds of events happening (or not happening). For example, we can expect to see one person per million developing a disease on any given year. What are the odds that we’ll see two per million or three per million? What is the probability that we’re seeing things just by chance alone?

An example I gave at a talk the other week was flipping coins and recording the outcomes. Two heads in a row won’t raise an eyebrow. Three heads in a row and people kind of get “itchy” about it. Four heads in a row? Well, the probability of that is .54, or 6.25%. We statisticians are okay with anything above 5% when it comes to chance. So five heads in a row, with a probability of .55, 3.13%, raises all sorts of red flags. The odds of it happening are rare enough to make me wonder if the coin is a fair coin.

The same thing goes for other things that happen in nature. If the odds of it happening are low enough, and it happens, it gets me wondering why it happened. I must find out why it happened. Then again, sometimes things just happen.

With over 7 billion of us on this planet, the odds are that we’re going to be okay individually despite the murder and mayhem we see in the news all the time. What is worse is that social media and mobile technology is making those news more widespread and well-known. We hear about murders here, there, and everywhere. We hear about civil war in places far away, and we are told by our political leaders that those wars “over there” make us less safe “over here.” (This last bit is not that novel, though. One of the theories and reasons for the Vietnam War was that Vietnam was one in a series of “dominoes” that would lead to global domination by the Communists.)

But, odds are that you and I will live to grow old and die of old age. Odds are that we won’t be victims of a terrorist attack or even murdered while being mugged as we walk home from the bus stop. But we hear about those things and we get a little nervous, we walk a little faster in the streets of Baltimore, and we look around to stay aware of our surroundings. These are not necessarily bad things. Certainly, learning from bad events with bad outcomes and being more aware of what led to those situations have only helped us reach 7 billion. But, man, the burden of being worried about dying can weigh on you.

I certainly walk a little faster and with my head on a swivel when I walk through some areas in Baltimore.

Of course, being murdered is not the only way to go. A plane could fall out of the sky and take you out. Or you could be in that plane. You could have a car accident on your way home. In the US, if you go by death statistics, your own habits will do you in via a heart attack or heart disease (#1), cancer (#2), lung disease (#3), stroke (#4), or diabetes (#7). Your lifestyle may do you in by making you commit suicide (#10). Heck, if you don’t wash your hands and get your flu shot, you could get influenza and die (#9). Accidents (#5), Alzheimer’s disease (#6), and kidney disease (#8) round out the top ten causes of death in the United States.

There are many ways to die, and the odds are very good that you will die. (The probability is 100%, if you were wondering.) It’s all about when and where and how you’ll die. Will it be old, in a warm bed, surrounded by the people who love you? Or will it be young, in the prime of your life, saving a school bus full of children that fell into a river? Odds are it’s the former and not the latter. Because the odds are good that you’ll find someone who loves you and someone to love, and that they will be with you through thick and thin, no matter what. And I’m not just talking about your “life partner.” I’m talking about your friends.

So I’m done worrying about at least that one thing called “death.” Yes, I’ll still be vigilant and not get myself into situations that will expedite my checking out of this life, but I can’t spend my life worrying that it will happen. Because it will happen, but odds are that it will be quite a while from now… And I have things to do.

[do action=”credit”]Photo credit: Powerhouse Museum Collection / Foter[/do]

I'm a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

One thought on “The odds are always good (that you’re going to die)

  1. During my decades of military service, risk was an accepted part of our teams existence. Our duties were hazardous, the environment austere, the risks many.
    We, as a matter of course became highly proficient at risk analysis and mitigation, whether the operation was simply providing immunizations and treatment to villagers in an area of interest or engaging hostile forces in remote regions in rather unpleasant parts of the world.
    We didn’t worry about the risk, we quantified it and planned for operations in advance, with a view toward adjusting operations should things “go sideways”. On occasion, things went really, really sideways, but our risk mitigation strategies helped minimize the risk to life and limb.

    In civilian life after my military retirement, I became an Information Assurance officer for US DoD installations. Part and parcel of my job was risk analysis and mitigation. In that area, it is far less of an art than an exercise in mathematics.
    Things like Single Loss Expectancy (SLE) is Asset Value (AV) x Exposure Factor (EF), Annual Rate of Occurrence (ARO) is arrived at by Annualized loss expectancy (ALE) x Single loss expectancy (SLE) = Annualized rate of occurrence (ARO). Threat X Vulnerability X Asset value = Total risk and Total risk – Countermeasures = Residual risk come into play. These are quantified and one calculates the risk of expected loss if no mitigation strategy is implemented vs the cost of mitigation. For, it is a poor practice to spend $100 to protect a $10 asset!
    So, one arrives at a point where one has a number of choices. Risk reduction, reducing or altering the risk. Risk transference, typically via purchasing insurance. Risk acceptance, realizing that mitigating a risk by reduction or transference would cost more than accepting an eventual loss. Finally, risk rejection, ignoring the risk entirely and pretending it does not exist.
    In life, one can perform a more qualitative method. One accepts risk just by living. One mitigates risk by choosing what actions one does or does not perform. Indeed, it is foolhardy in the extreme to not look both ways when crossing the street (risk rejection)! If one must pass through a “tough neighborhood”, one retains situational awareness, avoids proximity to narrow, ill lit alleyways, etc. One most certainly should not walk down dark, narrow alleyways at night in a bad neighborhood!
    One plans one’s route, has alternative routes in mind if the primary route is blocked by an emergency.
    Some even carry a concealed firearm. I used to in the past, then considered it more logically and stopped. The rationale was really simple, if I needed the weapon in an emergency, the criminal’s firearm is already out and aimed at me. Drawing then is incredibly foolish! I also risk losing said firearm in such a robbery. Firearms are expensive and maintenance intensive when carried concealed, lest the thing rust.
    The keys were, their weapon is out and aimed, mine is not and drawing would simply result in my suffering high velocity lead poisoning. Additionally, I had to clean the firearm, as sweat, skin and cloth residue accumulated inside of the firearm.
    So, I decided to not carry a firearm. It didn’t mitigate any significant risk, but it did expose me to the risk of loss of firearm, retaliation by a criminal who might notice the firearm, potential civil liability should an accident occur, it just didn’t make sense.

    That all said, a risk analysis is not worrying. It is a rational process. Worrying does not provide any form of a solution, blinds one to rational solutions and causes unhealthy stress.
    So, I don’t worry.
    But, I do keep my eyes open, retain situational awareness, don’t take absurd risks, use common sense and look both ways when crossing the street.
    After all, one never knows when a moose might be coming down a city street. 😉

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