Everybody dies; that’s a fact

A lot of people are going to die today. But don’t panic; you’re not about to read a new Unabomber manifesto or the twisted ramblings of someone about to go on a shooting spree.

This is not about shootings per se. This is about the totality of death in a country where on average more than 7,100 people die every single day largely unnoticed except to family and friends. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 2,596,993 Americans perished in 2013, the last year for which there are complete data.

According to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 12,253 of these people — or less than one half of 1 percent — were that year murder victims killed in any manner. Those deaths are tragic, but take them out of the equation, and we still had 2,584,740 Americans dead in 2013 from causes we hardly ever talk about.

Many of these deaths are also tragic, and all deaths come with social and economic costs. If you are an Alaskan, here are two numbers to chew on in relation to the economics: $199 million and $2.7 billion.

The former figure,  less than $200 million, is the total budget for the Alaska Department of Public Safety. The Alaska State Troopers, who investigate crimes including homicide, get about half of that money.

The latter number — a number more than 13 times the size —¬† is the budget for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Several hundred million dollars there goes to children’s services and the juvenile justice system, but the vast majority of that $2.7 billion¬† is spent on keeping people alive, or treating and researching their various health problems, many of which are self-inflicted.

Here, according to the Centers for Disease Control, are the leading causes of death for approximately 2.6 million Americans who died in 2013.

  • Heart disease: 611,105
  • Cancer: 584,881
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 149,205
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 130,557
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,978
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 84,767
  • Diabetes: 75,578
  • Influenza and Pneumonia: 56,979
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 47,112
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 41,149

When you look at the cold, hard numbers, it’s difficult to avoid wondering if maybe the combination of the Big Mac and the sedentary lifestyle isn’t more dangerous than firearms — far, far more dangerous than firearms.

Yes, there is a huge, personal difference between the danger of what someone else might do to you and what you chose to do to yourself. But the socio-economic costs of death don’t change all that much because of the way someone dies.

The social affects on your family are horrific no matter whether you are killed by a random shooter, rundown by a distracted driver, or dead of a heart attack because you refused to change your lifestyle. And the economic costs of death are largely the same no matter how you perish. They are measured in terms of lost productivity.

Granted, some deaths are the inevitable and unpreventable results of aging. And, of course, most suicide deaths are sadly linked to mental health issues Americans don’t even want to think about, let alone talk about. We have trouble wrapping our minds around the idea people can get sick in the head as easily in the body.

But a large percentage of everyday deaths — more than 500,000, according to one study — are linked to lifestyle choices.

One in five U.S. deaths are now tied to obesity, according to a study published by the American Journal of Public Health in 2013. The study has been criticized by some for failing to correct for such factors as smoking, heavy drinking and low socio-economic status, but smoking and heavy drinking are only other behaviors that now obviously lead toward death.

Socio-economic status, admittedly, is a tougher nut to crack. It is such a tough and obvious nut that it was years ago given a label: “poverty trap,” “a poverty trap is any self-reinforcing mechanism which causes poverty to persist. If it persists from generation to generation, the trap begins to reinforce itself if steps are not taken to break the cycle.”

It can be argued Americans in poverty — which includes a large number of people living in rural Alaska — face a greater danger than guns. Guns might do something to hurt you. Poverty will do something to hurt you.

Dr. Sandro Galea of Columbia, the lead author on a 2011 poverty study, ranked poverty as predictably deadly as smoking.

“…What we did is just as valid as what was done to establish smoking as a cause of death,” Galea told the New York Times.

Poverty kills, and it kills a lot more people than guns. But because we don’t really think about death in America, we don’t think about poverty or obesity or motor vehicle collisions or chronic respiratory problems as death issues.

After a public lobbying campaign that has now lasted decades, we have started thinking about smoking in this way, and we clearly think about guns in this way even though the odds of being shot dead are tiny compared to the odds of dying in all the other ways people die.

Gun crime has become the yardstick by which we measure the goodness of our society.

As this is written, I am in Fairbanks where a former Anchorage resident just told me she’s glad she doesn’t live in the state’s largest city anymore because of “all the shootings.” All I could do was scratch my head.

The Anchorage murder rate was 4 per 100,000 in 2014, the last year for which full figures are available. That’s down from 5.1 per 100,000 in 2012, and way down from where the rate peaked at 11 per 100,000 in the mid-1990s.

And yet the perception is different because we are so caught up in the issue of guns and so detached from all the other ways people die. Is it solely because shootings, at least in Alaska, now attract so much media attention? Or is it something deeper?



Categories: Commentary, News

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