Mind & Body

Your Odds of Dying, Ranked

Everybody dies eventually. It's just a fact of life. But depending on what kinds of movies you watch, you might think that the leading causes of death are ravenous sharks, terrorist attacks, or showing your police partner a picture of your family and announcing your retirement. It turns out that you just can't make many movies about killer horses. They probably shouldn't be your main concern anyway — but here are your chances of dying of other causes, in order.

Running the Numbers

Loyal Curiosity readers know that horses and cattle pose a much more significant risk to residents of the United States than sharks — not to mention lions, tigers, or bears. (Oh my.) But have you ever wondered how they actually make those risk calculations? We did, and not just for deadly animals, but for all of the ways that a person's life might be cut tragically short. So we reached out to Ken Kolosh, the manager of statistics at the National Safety Council, to find out how he crunches the numbers and calculates the risks of any given activity. Here are some of our favorite takeaways, but make sure to check out our podcast to hear the full interview.

The secret, it turns out, is that there is a big difference between risks that affect everyone about equally and risks that are a lot stronger for certain segments of the population. If you want to gauge the chances of death a given source poses to the population at large, that's a much simpler calculation.

"We look at the number of deaths from a particular cause, like a car crash or a plane crash, or even a dog bite," says Kolosh. "Then, we take data from the Census Bureau on population and life expectancy, and we bring all that data together to calculate the odds of dying."

You can figure out the odds of dying over the course of the year by dividing the number of deaths by the population. To get the odds over the course of an entire lifetime, just divide the one-year odds by life expectancy, which is currently about 78.6 years.

You can see these results on the National Safety Council's Odds of Dying chart. It's pretty interesting, but it's also not the most accurate way of calculating these odds. For example, about 1 in 102 Americans will die in a motor accident, but that number is presumably much higher if you only look at Americans who actually own a car, and even higher among those that drive on a daily basis. Similarly, we've got to assume that marine biologists and ranchers have very different ideas about the deadliness of sharks versus horses (although any way you slice it, there hasn't been a death by shark attack in years).

With risks like sharks or even earthquakes, it's just too difficult to pin down all of the various factors that could alter your risk relative to another person's. But when it comes to vehicles, you've got a pretty reliable across-the-board metric: distance traveled. Despite the fact that your stomach likely drops a bit each and every time you take off in an airplane, you travel many fewer miles by air than by car. For that reason, fear of death in a plane may be misplaced.

"Our chances of dying in an airplane per 100 million miles traveled is less than 0.001," says Kolosh. "Our odds of dying in a car crash are 0.47 per 100 million miles traveled. That means you're 470 times more likely per mile traveled to die in your car than on a scheduled airline."

Your Risks, by the Numbers

But let's be real. You didn't read this article to discover the math they do to figure out the most dangerous risk factors in the country. You want to know exactly what you should be avoiding — and which of your fears aren't worth it. For Americans, the two top causes of death are depressingly predictable: heart disease (1 in 6 lifetime risk) and cancer (1 in 7). But here are the top 10 risks of death over the course of your lifetime when you don't count diseases. We pulled these numbers from the NSC and the Insurance Information Institute.

  • Unintentional poisoning (1 in 70). This can be further broken down into death by drug poisoning (1 in 75) and death by legal or illegal opioids (1 in 109).
  • Suicide (1 in 91). Sadly, more than 1 in 100 Americans will likely take their own lives at some point. Remember to check in on your loved ones, and call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline if you're feeling distressed yourself.
  • Motor vehicle accidents (1 in 102). This number can be broken down into automotive drivers and passengers (1 in 583), motorcycle riders (1 in 846), and pedestrians (1 in 561). Remember, that doesn't mean motorcycles are safer, just that fewer people ride them.
  • Accidental fall (1 in 119). The risk isn't always the initial fall as much as what happens next. There's a reason why medical alert systems like Life Call are so important.
  • Gun assault (1 in 285). Another cause of death that's sadly and predictably high on the list of risks to American lives.

  • Drowning (1 in 1,086). Here's one that's certainly connected to your lifestyle: specifically, how often you go into the water. It's a good idea to read up on the signs of drowning — a drowning person doesn't flail around like you might think they do.
  • Fire or smoke exposure (1 in 1,506). Don't become a statistic. Always go to bed with your bedroom door closed to boost your chances of surviving a fire.
  • Choking on food (1 in 3,138). If you see this happening in a restaurant, don't panic. As it turns out, you don't need much practice to pull of the Heimlich maneuver. It certainly couldn't hurt to make sure you know how, though.
  • Biking accidents (1 in 4,050). The relatively high number of biking deaths per year should be a reminder to always, always wear your helmet — it can reduce your risk of head injury by up to 60 percent.
  • Accidental shooting (1 in 8,305). Obviously, you'll be at a much higher risk if you keep a gun in your house. If you choose to own a gun, always keep it locked up and never deviate from standard firearm safety rules.

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Feeling a little paranoid? We don't blame you. Keep your loved ones safe with high-tech gear like this 3-in-1 car seat — it grows as your child does. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 2, 2018

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