Can we determine when we die? In reality we do, but only inadvertently and by mistake.

Winter is a seasonal killer. In most countries the time of Christmas and the New Year is the peak period for death. It is not just the cold climate, since Nordic countries tend to have less of a peak, but it might be related to the psychological stress of the holidays. And perhaps eating and drinking too much.

But after accounting for these natural stressors of life we still see other patterns of death that are intriguing. By studying these patterns we might learn something about how we will ourselves to die.

David Phillips, together with the University of California, San Diego, has examined this question in great detail and a lot of his work shows that we are indeed in control of when we die, sort of.

In 1992, Phillips examined deaths from natural causes in two samples of around three million people. Women were more likely to die in the week following their birthdays than in any other week of the year (lifeline). In contrast, male deaths peak shortly before their birthday (deadline).

Women use their birth dates as a lifeline and extend their life a little bit so that they can reach that milestone, whereas men see their birthday as a deadline and shorten their life before they reach it. Phillips’ question has always been why we see this preference to die earlier or later. We can argue that men and women are different, perhaps even genetically, which makes us look differently at ageing and birthdays. But Phillips has shown these patterns across a whole scope of different populations.

Controlling when we die might seem exaggerated. But we do control how we tell the story of death and how we resist it

Working with Elliot King, Phillips showed that in a small Jewish group, death declines by about a third below normal before the Jewish holiday of Passover and then peaks by the same amount the week after. It seems that Jewish people use Passover as a lifeline, to extend their life just long enough to enjoy the celebrations and thereafter they catch up with their delayed mortality.

This interpretation is further supported when we look at other ethnicities. Again, Phillips, this time working with Daniel Smith, found that Chinese people die less by a third the week before the Harvest Moon Festival and peak by the same amount the week after. Again, Chinese people use the Harvest Moon Festival as a lifeline to prolong living, after which statistics catch up with them. 

In contrast, there might be events that act as a deadline and provide a sharp, short, full stop. This is known as the Hound of the Baskervilles effect – from the Sherlock Holmes story of dogs frightening people to death – where psychological stress brings forward the timing of death. Again, we have to look at the Asian culture to see evidence for such deadlines in life.

Tetraphobia, the practice of avoiding the number ‘4’, is a superstition that is common in China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. The reason for avoiding the number is because of the similarity in pronunciation between the word ‘four’ and ‘death’ in Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese. This is similar to the Western superstition of triskaidekaphobia, relating to the number 13 – although this has nothing to do with phonetics or how it sounds and more to do with the odd number (a prime).

Back to Asians and the number four, Phillips, looking at death from heart disease among Chinese and Japanese Ameri­cans, found that there are one in 12 extra deaths among Chinese and Japanese Americans on the fourth of the month. No such increases showed up among other ethnic populations.

The interpretation is that if we expect to die on a certain day, then, as a group, we have less resistance to death.

Such an interpretation seems fanciful. Surely, we would expect people to want to stay alive longer, but life’s circumstances sometimes do not offer us such comfortable passage.

Many studies find that the death of a child is associated with an overall in­creased death from both natural and unnatural causes in parents – up to 18 years after the death of a child. We never recover from the death of a child and our expectation of survival is diminished. This is for both natural and adopted children (therefore not related to some genetic cause).

We are storytelling animals. We like stories that have meaning. One way to explain the death of a child is that death is random and that there is nothing we could have done. But if death is random, then there is nothing we can do about it for us as well. We become more passive and therefore less resistant to death.

Controlling when we die might seem exaggerated. But we do control how we tell the story of death and how we resist it. Perhaps sometimes we want to give up too easily.

Mario Garrett was born in Malta and is currently a professor of gerontology at San Diego State University in California, US.


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