Government Technology

Novel Online Tool to Rank Death Rates


Paul Fischbeck
Paul Fischbeck

August 26, 2009 By

Photo: Paul Fischbeck, site developer and professor of social and decision sciences and engineering and public policy (EPP) at Carnegie Mellon.

In the days when people frequented fortune tellers (one assumes it was more frequent in ages past), probably one of the most asked question was, "When and how will I die?"

But what about a more scientific approach based on statistical data? What if you could ask things like, "What are my chances of dying in the next year? Is this more likely to be from illness or accident? And can I reduce the risks in some way?"

Well, now you can. A new Web site, www.DeathRiskRankings.com, developed by researchers and students at Carnegie Mellon University, allows users to query publicly available data from the United States and Europe, and compare mortality risks by gender, age, cause of death and geographic region.

The Web site not only gives the risk of dying within the next year, but it also ranks the probable causes and allows for quick side-by-side comparison between groups.

"Suppose you wanted to know who is more likely to die next year from breast cancer, a 54-year-old Pennsylvania woman or her counterpart in the United Kingdom. This is the only place to look," said Paul Fischbeck, site developer and professor of social and decision sciences and engineering and public policy (EPP) at Carnegie Mellon. "It turns out that the British woman has a 33 percent higher risk of breast cancer death. But for lung/throat cancer, the results are almost reversed, and the Pennsylvania woman has a 29 percent higher risk."

"Most Americans don't have a particularly good understanding of their own mortality risks, let alone ranking of their relevant risks," added David Gerard, a former EPP professor at Carnegie Mellon who is now an associate professor of economics at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.

Fischbeck and Gerard hope the new Web site will help bring focus to some of the discussion now raging over health care policy in the United States.

They also point out that, when it comes to dying within the year, there are dramatic differences between comparative groups:

  • For every age group, men have a much higher annual death risk than women. For 20 year olds, the risk is 2.5 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 at greater risk of dying. However, women's cancer risks are actually higher than men's in their 30s and 40s.
  • For heart disease and cancer, U.S. blacks have a much higher death risk than U.S. whites. Overall, blacks in their 30s and 40s are twice as likely to die within the year as their white counterparts. Only for suicides, do whites consistently exceed blacks, where whites typically have two to three times greater chances of dying.
  • For 20-year-old males, 80 percent of their death risks are from accidents, homicides and suicides. By age 50, however, these causes make up less than 10 percent and heart disease is No. 1, accounting for more than 30 percent of all deaths.
  • People living in Western Europe have a greater risk of dying from breast and prostate cancer than people living in the United States, but people in the United States have a greater chance of dying from lung cancer than people living in Western Europe.
  • Obesity-related death risks are much higher in the United States than in Europe. For example, the annual diabetes death risk in the United States is three times that found in northern Europe for 60 year olds.

"It's much easier to make a persuasive argument when you have the facts to back it up, and this site provides all sides with the facts," Fischbeck said. "We believe that this tool, which allows anyone to assess their own risk of dying and to compare their risks with counterparts in the United States and Europe, could help inform the public and constructively engage them in the debate."

This story was compiled from online news reports and web pages.

 


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