The Truth about Risk: What Death Can Teach Us about Living

Living close to a volcano

A while back a newspaper published a graphic detailing causes of death in Canada. I was surprised by how little I knew about various risks and how people die.

Curious to find out more, I poked around online for worldwide and U.S. statistics. And the results were not that far off.

When I think of danger, I think of murder, war, terrorism, and plane crashes (mostly based on media coverage and television programming). Looking at the numbers tells a different story.

Before I get into the details, let me share my reasons for writing this article.

Why am I talking about death (end of life) at the beginning of a new year (fresh start and hopeful beginnings)?

My reason is quite simple: to encourage myself and you my dear reader to stay focused on what matters after the collective euphoria and enthusiasm wear off and the pesky resistance and fears rear their ugly heads.

By becoming more aware of where true danger lies, we can let go of fearful illusions and misconceptions.

Pursuing what we desire and failing is not a leading cause of death as statistics show. Most of what we desire to do is not going to kill us.

Actually some of the statistics can provide the extra motivation (or kick in the pants) to change old behaviors.

So without further ado here are my notes.

There are many causes of death, the biggest of which is disease. The details may vary by country, age, gender, and income level. The main killer though remains disease.

And by no means am I saying let’s take the other causes lightly. I pray for the day when humanity transcends violence and the need for domination, or exploitation. Every life is worth preserving and respecting.

I’m highlighting the points that changed how I view risk in my life. I hope you find them useful too.

1- Disease is the number one killer responsible for more than 90% of deaths.

This is not a big shock. But it does put the other causes of death into perspective.

If disease kills most of us, it’s worth focusing on preventative measures that can reduce our risks.

Heart disease kills around 17 million worldwide every year. The risk can be reduced by 80%.

Heart disease is responsible for 30% of deaths worldwide.

Behavioral risk factors (unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity, tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption) are responsible for 80% of heart disease.

By making different choices we can reduce our risks significantly. A healthier lifestyle can reduce our chances of heart disease by 80%. It’s quite encouraging.

Cancer kills around 8 million people annually.

About 30% of cancer deaths are due to the behavioral risks mentioned above (plus certain STDs, air pollution, and indoor smoke from use of solid fuels).

Tobacco use is responsible for 10% of adult deaths. It’s responsible for 22% of global cancer deaths and 71% of global lung cancer deaths.

Lung cancer kills 3 times more people than breast cancer in Canada.

Smoking rate in developed countries has been declining, but lung cancer is on the rise. It seems mistakes of the past eventually catch up with us.

We may not be able to significantly reduce the probability of getting cancer but 30% improvement is better than 0%.

Taking care of our health may not eliminate the risk of disease. But it will improve the quality of our lives. And that’s what matters most.

2- A real eye opener! We’re more dangerous to ourselves than anyone or anything else.

I was shocked by the stats below. These statistics may not apply to developing countries (due to much higher road fatalities). I suspect though they apply to most developed nations.

I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves.

Suicide kills more people than car accidents & plane crashes combined.

  • In Canada (2009 data): 3,890 people died by suicide vs. 2,406 who were killed in car accidents.
  • In the US (2011 data: pages 18-19): 38,285 people died as a result of suicide vs. 34,677 who died in car accidents. If we add all other transport accidents (air, water & other land ) the total becomes 37,275 people—still less than suicide.

More people die as a result of suicide than homicide.

  • In Canada (2009 data): 3,890 suicide deaths vs. 610 homicides. A ratio of 6 to 1.
  • In the US (2011 data: pages 19): 38,285 deaths by suicide vs. 15,953 homicides. A ratio of 2 to 1.

What can I say about these numbers?

Mental and emotional health is key to our survival. Yet, it hardly gets the attention accidents and homicides command.

Depression or any other mental illness needs to be looked at as a serious condition that needs more funding, more understanding and compassion, and less stigma.

3- Dangers of the mundane: We’re more likely to die from falling than in a plane crash.

  • In Canada (2007 data): 2,677 people died as a result of falling vs. 45 in plane accidents.
  • In the US (2011 data page 18): 26,631 died because of falls vs. 1,647 in air, water & other than land transport related accidents (couldn’t find data specific to planes, but you get the idea).

When we think of danger, we think of planes and boats, or terrorist and shark attacks, not of falling out of bed.

This is an interesting one because we cannot consciously do anything to prevent it from happening. We can do our best when we walk, go down the stairs, or get out of bed. But there is always the likelihood of falling.

So it’s best to let go of wanting security when we know absolute safety doesn’t exist.

The above notes are just highlights. There are details upon details of what’s killing us. But the main point remains the same:

As long as we’re alive, we’re exposed to risk and danger, and ultimately death. We cannot fight the inevitable, so we might as well let death teach us how to live.

What mighty death tells me about life can be summed up in a few points below.

We need to make our health—physical, mental, and emotional—our number one priority. When we take care of ourselves, we’ll be better equipped to help others. And we will live the best life possible for us.

Next time you turn on your TV and see reports or stories about plane crashes and murders, remember that they’re a tiny fraction of what can harm us.

Danger is (and will continue to be) as close to us as our breath. We can’t avoid it or hide from it. We’ve lived with it so far, and we’ll continue to live with it—except now we can let go of unfounded fears and enjoy the ride a little bit more.

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