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How Will You Die?

What do you worry is going to kill you? Breast cancer? A heart attack? A car crash?

We get bombarded with all sorts of things to fret about: One day something in our water bottles may cause cancer. The next day the stress from our jobs is going to give us a heart attack. Today you'll hear about a new report saying shower curtains spew dangerous chemicals.

Well, there's also some new research that will help make sense of this cacophony of seemingly dire threats coming at us constantly from every direction (including this blog, I suppose.)

Steven Woloshin of Dartmouth University and two colleagues updated a set of charts they published five years ago to help sort out these kinds of risks. After tweaking their original statistical model, the researchers plugged in data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics about the more than 2 million Americans who died in 2004.

The new charts estimate your risk of dying in the next 10 years from various leading threats, including heart disease, stroke, AIDS, accidents and cancer. Because the main things that influence a person's chances of dying are their gender, age and whether they smoke, the researchers produced separate charts for men, women, smokers, former smokers and those who never smoked, using data from the American Cancer Society.

The charts, published this week in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, show that men are more likely to die in the next 10 years than women and that smoking subtracts about 10 years from a man's life. For example, a 50-year-old male smoker's chances of dying for any reason is about the same as 60-year-old non-smoker. For women, smoking steals about five years.

But the charts also let a man who's pushing 50 and used to smoke (me) ask questions like: Out of 1,000 guys like me, how many will probably to die from lung cancer in the next 10 years? (Answer: seven.) Prostate cancer? (Answer: two.) What about a heart attack? (Answer: 17.) My never-a-smoker wife can see if she should worry more about a heart attack or breast cancer. (Answer: Heart attack.) You can check your risks here.

Woloshin hopes newspapers will publish his charts and doctors will post them in their waiting rooms to help people decide where to focus their efforts to live longer. They may decide, for example, that they're better off losing weight, exercising more or maybe taking a pill to lower their cholesterol to cut their chances of having a heart attack than obsessing about what their latest PSA test says about their chances of getting prostate cancer.

What are you worried about?

By Rob Stein  |  June 12, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  General Health  
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