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The Six Most Feared but Least Likely Causes of Death

Deepak Chopra, M.D., a pioneer of alternative medicine, once said that everything we fear has already happened. In other words, there's no need to fear most of what we spending time fearing.

Still, many Americans have intense fears of death by certain causes that are actually very unlikely to occur. On the contrary, the most likely causes of death are rarely sources of fear for most of us.

What follows is a list of some of those common, yet unfounded, causes of death that are most feared ... yet least likely to occur.

Then, at the end of the article take a look at the real most common causes of death, and see if your fears are justified.

Airplane crashes: Some 30 million Americans describe themselves as "anxious" flyers. What makes them anxious is the fear of dying in a plane crash. What's the actual risk of being involved in a fatal airline accident? According to Arnold Barnett, a statistical expert in the field of aviation safety, it's once every 19,000 years--and that is only provided the person flew on an airplane once a day for 19,000 years!

Being killed by a shark is a common fear, but one that's totally unfounded: Your odds of being attacked by a shark are just one in 11.5 million.

Shark attacks: Do you refuse to go near the movie Jaws for fear that you'll never go back in the water? You're not alone, as many Americans fear getting killed by a shark.

According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), though, only 1,909 confirmed shark attacks have occurred around the world--between 1580 and 2003! Of these, 737 happened in the United States, and 38 people died as a result. That said, what are your real odds of being attacked by a shark? One in 11.5 million, says the ISAF. Being killed by a shark? Zero in 264.1 million.

Being murdered: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one person is murdered about every 60 seconds worldwide, and in 2000, an estimated 520,000 people were murdered in the world. Although this sounds like a lot, let us put things into perspective: In 2000, over 6 million people died of cancer.

Falling to death: In 2001, more than 11,600 people aged 65 and older died from fall-related injuries, representing a very real concern. Children are also at risk of falling if they're not being properly supervised. But the type of fall we're talking about here is the kind that occurs from a height and to adults. While falling from a height is a leading cause of work-related death among construction workers, it kills only an estimated 80 people each year. And, the risk to the general population, who are exposed to heights less often, is likely to be lower than that.

Terrorist attack: With the recent London bombings and September 11th not too far behind, death by terrorist attack is fresh in many people's minds. A poll in Conde Nast Traveler in February 2003 found that one-third of respondents feared a terrorist attack. What are your real odds of dying this way? Historically speaking, it's a one in 9.3 million chance--which is a slightly greater risk than you have of dying in an avalanche.

Natural disaster: Earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, floods, storms, heat, cold ... all of these are perceived as a threat looming overhead at any time. Your real lifetime odds of dying from a natural force like those listed above? One in 3,357, according to the science and technology Web site You're much more likely to be killed by a fire or by committing suicide.

Actual Leading Causes of Death

An unhealthy diet is actually a leading cause of death in the United States.

Biggest fears aside, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study that uncovered the actual leading causes of death in the United States (in 2000). Overwhelmingly, these causes stem from our own, modifiable behaviors.

  • Tobacco (435,000 deaths, 18.1 percent of total U.S. deaths)

  • Poor diet and physical inactivity (400,000 deaths, 16.6 percent)

  • Alcohol consumption (85,000 deaths, 3.5 percent)

  • Microbial agents (75,000)

  • Toxic agents (55,000)

  • Motor vehicle crashes (43,000)

  • Incidents involving firearms (29,000)

  • Sexual behaviors (20,000)

  • Illicit use of drugs (17,000)

Recommended Reading

Warning: Certain Smells May Make You a Dangerous Driver (Really!)

Why are More Boys than Girls Being Born?


CBS News: A Murder a Minute

Are You Heading for a Fall?

San Francisco Chronicle: Among Travel Risks, Death by Terrorist Attack is Remote

Journal of the American Medical Association 2004;291:1238-1245

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