Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

November 10, 2013

Vasicek: How we die in the U.S.

By Ed Vasicek
Guest columnist

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Because we in the West have been greatly influenced by Judo-Christian ethics, most of us place a high premium upon human life. If man is indeed in God’s image, then man is more than a merely advanced animal and thus possesses a special dignity. Although other ethical systems may champion a high view of human life, it is this particular ethic (ingrained in Western culture), combining with other supporting factors, that has fueled the momentum for amazing advances in health and longevity.

As I was perusing the Kokomo Tribune, I was saddened to read about the accidental death of a man in his 20s (and I express my sympathies to his family). The same edition offered this headline, “State’s infant mortality rates worsening.” Although death and taxes are inevitable, premature death is particularly painful.

Today’s column is about leading causes of death in the U.S. It may surprise you. In his book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman writes about a study in perception. This research was conducted by a team headed by Paul Slovic. The study demonstrated how media-driven our perceptions about “causes of death” are. Someone dying of heart failure at age 60, for example, rarely makes the headlines.

“Tornadoes were seen as more frequent killers than asthma, although the latter causes 20 times more deaths. Death by lightning was judged less likely than death by botulism even though it is 52 times more frequent. Death by disease is 18 times as likely as death by accidental death, but the two were judged to be equally likely. Death by [auto] accident was judged to be more than 300 times more likely than death by diabetes, but the true ratio is 1:4.”

According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010 stats), the average American lives to the ripe old age of 78.7, nearly 79. Nearly 2.5 million people died in the U.S. in 2010, and nearly 600,000 of them died from heart disease, the leading cause of death. Next on the list was cancer, with 575,000 deaths. After that, we see a big drop off. Respiratory disease took about 138,000, stroke about 129,000, accidents (of all kinds) about 121,000 (about 33,000 of those deaths were from car accidents, according to NHTSA). Alzheimer's disease took about 83,000, and diabetes about 69,000. The list continues with kidney disease taking 50,000, influenza and pneumonia 50,000, and suicide 38,000.

When you look at the statistics, it seems evident that we have done a great job of reducing some deaths by accidents (auto deaths have come down quite a bit; this drop is attributed to serious enforcement of drunken-driving laws, mandatory seat belts, and air bags). Sadly, more people died of suicide in 2010 than car accidents.

Even those of us who have stents may eventually die of heart diseases (thus reinforcing the statistics, but living longer), while many cancer patients live longer but still eventually die of cancer (likewise failing to show up as a change in statistics).

Where we have made gains in delaying death, we often fail to emphasize the most important precautions. Our failure is personal, primarily surfacing in the realm of basic habits, like smoking or eating plenty of fast foods. We are still “bringing home the bacon” when we should be bringing home the turkey bacon.

Since almost half of us will die from heart disease or cancer, it makes sense to target habits that reduce or delay contracting these culprits. Walking, eating green, leafy vegetables and fruit, and cutting down on cholesterol (especially fried foods and red meats) is a great start. New evidence suggests that even daily flossing has been demonstrated to combat these and other ailments by reducing the mouth bacterias that weaken our health.

Death by tornado or death by accident makes the news, but perhaps the headlines should read, “Fred Jones plugged up his arteries with fast food and died of a sudden heart attack at age 50; Sally Smith contracted lung cancer from smoking year after year.” Such headlines are not as newsworthy as death by terrorist attack or random shootings, but it is how many more of us meet our Maker.

• Ed Vasicek is pastor of Highland Park Church and a weekly contributor to the Kokomo Tribune. Contact him at edvasicek@comcast.net.