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Originally published Friday, August 28, 2009 at 11:59 AM

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Is death knocking at your door? Check odds on the Web

The Internet is full of information, oddities, porn and, now, thanks to a Web site developed by researchers and students at Carnegie Mellon...

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Internet is full of information, oddities, porn and, now, thanks to a Web site developed by researchers and students at Carnegie Mellon University, a way for users to determine their chances of dying within the next year.

The Web site officially unveiled Thursday — www.DeathRiskRankings.com — was immediately so popular it quickly recorded 3 million hits and temporarily shut down for two hours because of server problems.

"One of our tag lines is 'Death has never been so much fun,' " said Paul Fischbeck, site developer and professor of social and decision sciences, engineering and public policy at CMU.

"I study risk — financial, environmental, health and safety, I've done all of those things,"Fischbeck explained. "One of the biggest risks we have is dying, it's always hanging over us. When you look at death statistics, there's infant mortality and life expectancy. There's not a lot in between.

"If you really wanted to know the statistics for you personally that you might die next year, you'd have a hard time trying to find it. We wanted to develop a site to allow you to do that."

In addition to the "fun"of learning your risk of dying within the next year, or the next five, 10, 20 or 30 years, and what your likely cause of death will be, the Web site allows users to compare mortality risks by gender, age, cause of death and geographic region, including the United States and Europe.

The developers hope the statistics they gathered for the United States from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and for 30 European countries from the European Union, and the comparisons they accommodate, will provide a jumping-off point for other researchers and health policymakers, particularly during the health-care debate.

"Let's get the discussion on the facts and not on anecdotes,"Fischbeck said. "We need an informed discussion to see where the problems are and then we can focus our resources, whether intellectual, research, financial, medical.

"We need to have a focused effort to try to understand why there are disparities and try to reduce them."

For example, a 54-year-old British woman has a 33 percent higher risk of breast-cancer death than her counterpart in Pennsylvania, but the Pennsylvania woman has a 29 percent higher risk of lung/throat cancer.

Other comparisons show that men have a much higher annual death risk than women and that black people in the United States have a much higher death risk from heart disease and cancer than white people. In fact, black people in their 30s and 40s are twice as likely to die within the year as their white counterparts.

One of the most disturbing comparisons shows that a 19-year-old black man is twice as likely as his white counterpart to die within the next year, with 65 percent of those deaths of black men due to homicide, compared to only 5 percent of the white counterparts.

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Nevertheless, the risk of those 19-year-olds dying over the next year is relatively small — for black people it is 2 chances in 1,000 and for white people it is 1 chance in 1,000.

Fischbeck said he's done studies that show college students greatly overestimate their chances of dying. That's because they react so strongly to stories of people their age dying.

"They all think they're going to die tomorrow,"he said. "Their risk may be 1 in a 1,000 and they think it's 1 in 10."

He said they're ecstatic when they find out the statistical truth, but, "I hope they don't go out and do something stupid after they learn their true risk."

Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com. His risk of dying in the next year is 1 in 100.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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