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Out of My Head

Everything we do can be scored for its risk of killing us

October 24th, 2011 1:55 pm by Jan Hearne

Someone once told me my approach to life was like the reader who turned to the last page of the story first. “You want to know how it ends,” he said. “With life, you don’t get to do that.”
I had to agree.
Given my nature, when I heard the term “micromort,” I took notice. If I can’t read the last page of my life, then maybe I can stack the cards in my favor (as much as fate will allow).
Micromort is a term coined by Stanford University professor Ronald A. Howard in 1968 to describe a one-in-a-million chance of death. By assigning micromorts to different activities, Howard offered an analysis of how likely we are to die in a given year.
In a document titled “Risks that Increase the Annual Death Risk by One Micromort,” Howard lists various activities that bring us tiny steps closer to the last hurrah.
It’s a kind of pick-your-poison table. For example, eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter carries the same risk as flying 1,000 miles by jet. Given a choice, I’d forgo the peanut butter and opt for a vacation in the tropics. Hang gliding equals eight micromorts; scuba diving 5. There was a time in my life when I wanted to do both. At my age, I’ll take neither.
Interestingly, living with a smoker for two months carries the same micromort value as living in Denver for two months or living two days in Boston or New York. (Give me Denver.)
Horse-back riding and skiing carry the same risk: 1⁄2 micromort per activity. Clearly Howard never rode the horses I’ve ridden. One named Timmy planted his hoof on my rib cage in an effort to not fall on me after he tripped in a hole and threw me. I’d say that was a double-digit micromort event.
According to the Rail Safety and Standards Board, an average person driving 230 miles in a car experiences one micromort. Sounds low to me, but does it take into account the chance encounter with a drunken driver?
We want certainty in this life (and in the next if we can get it). As things become more unpredictable, I think micromorts will become part of our vocabulary.
Micromorts can also be applied to necessary risks. In 1989, Howard proposed using micromorts to inform patients about the risks of medical conditions or treatments. Those risks could be placed in perspective “by noting that we live in a society where people face about 270 micromorts per year from interactions with motor vehicles,” the abstract says.
The risk of death from general anesthetic is 10 micromorts — more than hang gliding (eight micromorts) but less than riding a motor bike 100 miles (17 micromorts).
If, for example, I were about to undergo surgery, it would be helpful to know I faced a theoretical risk akin to driving for two months, but, truth is, you can’t live a full life based on probabilities.
When the end is near, do I really want to know I measured out my life in micromorts?

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