Saturday, August 29, 2009

Carnegie Mellon researchers develop tool to rank death rates

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

Have you ever wondered what the chances are that you may die in the next year? Would it be from illness or an accident? Is it something you can control? Or is it completely out of your hands?

A new Web site,, 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,” said David Gerard, a former EPP professor at Carnegie Mellon who is now an associate professor of economics at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.

The researchers found that beyond infancy, the risk of dying increases annually at an exponential rate. A 20-year-old U.S. woman has a 1 in 2,000 (or 0.05 percent) chance of dying in the next year. By age 40, the risk is three times greater; by age 60, it is 16 times greater; and by age 80, it is 100 times greater (around 1 in 20 or 5 percent). “The risks are higher, but still not that bad,” Gerard said. “At 80, the average U.S. woman still has a 95 percent chance of making it to her 81st birthday.”

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