I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. It all started after reading the cryptic advice of a man named Bob Weighton. When asked for the secret to his longevity on his 111th birthday, Mr. Weighton replied “I have no answer, except to avoid dying.”1 I keep wondering exactly how he managed to accomplish this feat, especially when so many factors involved in life and death seem to lie beyond our control.
The most common cause of death in US adults under the age of 45 is unintentional injury, consisting of motor vehicle traffic accidents and accidental poisonings; after this age, cancer and heart disease surge ahead but unintentional injury remains high on the list.2 In 2017 it was estimated that one person in the US died every three minutes from unintentional injury, and for each person who died, another 129 people went to the emergency department and 13 more were hospitalized.2
I can understand ways to reduce the risk of being in a motor vehicle accident — after all, refraining from driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs, and distractions while obeying speed limits goes a long way — but factors associated with accidental poisoning seem more complex. I would think that most adults would have more sense than to knowingly expose themselves to life-threatening toxins, but it turns out that the majority of accidental poisonings in adults are drug-related, a category that includes legal and illegal drugs taken for both medical and recreational reasons. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System, three of the top five toxic exposure categories include analgesics, sedatives/hypnotics/antipsychotics, and antidepressants.3 Shockingly, 95% of preventable poisoning deaths in 2017 were caused by drug overdoses, of which two-thirds were attributable to opioids secondary to their respiratory depression effects.4,5 And taking certain drugs or drinking alcohol under the summer sun can rapidly result in dehydration and hyperthermia, making hospitalization from heat-related illnesses and death by heatstroke more likely.6,7,8
So how can you avoid dying this summer? In addition to taking any medications only as prescribed and staying as cool as you can, think about driving to summer barbeques, concerts, and holiday destinations with care, because traveling by personal vehicle is 10 times riskier than taking a bus, train, or airplane.9 And while you’re out and about, remain mindful that others around you may be impaired — in 2017 alone, 34.2 million people drove after drinking alcohol or using illegal drugs, and the year before that, nearly 44% of people killed in motor vehicle accidents either tested positive for alcohol or had two or more drugs in their system.10
Summer is traditionally a happy time filled with outdoor fun, vacation activities, and more. So let’s keep it that way by intentionally modifying some risk, and who knows? Maybe in the fullness of time when we’re interviewed for the secret to our longevity, we’ll have some good advice to share.
- “Britain’s Oldest Men Turn 111 Years Old.” BBC News. 29 Mar. 2019. BBC. 6 Jun. 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-hampshire-47744752
- “Key Injury and Violence Data.” Injury Prevention & Control. 8 May 2017. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. 6 Jun. 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/overview/key_data.html
- Gummin, D.D., et al. “2017 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System (NPDS): 35th Annual Report.” Clin Toxicol (Phila). 56 12 (2018): 1213-1415.
- “Poisoning.” Injury Facts. 2019. National Safety Council. 6 Jun. 2019. https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/home-and-community/safety-topics/poisoning/data-details/.
- “Information Sheet on Opioid Overdose.” World Health Organization. Aug. 2018. WHO. 6 Jun. 2019. https://www.who.int/substance_abuse/information-sheet/en/
- Walter, E., and M. Carraretto. “Drug-induced Hyperthermia in Critical Care.” J Intensive Care Soc. 16 4 (2015): 306-311.
- Ellett, K., et al. “Increased Risk of Hospital Admission for Dehydration or Heat-related Illness after Initiation of Medicines: A Sequence Symmetry Analysis.” J Clin Pharm Ther. 41 5 (2016): 503-507.
- O’Connor, F.G., and D.J. Casa. “Exertional Heat Illness in Adolescents and Adults: Epidemiology, Thermoregulation, Risk Factors, and Diagnosis.” UpToDate. 12 Nov. 2018. Wolters Kluwer Health. 6 Jun. 2019. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/exertional-heat-illness-in-adolescents-and-adults-epidemiology-thermoregulation-risk-factors-and-diagnosis
- “Deaths by Transportation Mode.” Injury Facts. 2019. National Safety Council. 6 Jun. 2019. https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/home-and-community/safety-topics/deaths-by-transportation-mode/
- “Drugged Driving.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Oct. 2018. National Institutes of Health. 6 Jun. 2019. https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/infographics/drugged-driving