What’s With All The Deaths?

So apparently the universe has decided that my blog should be absolutely no fun at all, and should instead focus on eulogizing famous people. (Just for that, universe, I’m taking you off my Christmas card list this year.)

Since the tragic death of José Fernández earlier today, we’ve learned that country music pioneer Jean Shepard and golf titan Arnold Palmer have also passed away. Add these names to the long list of famous figures that have died this year (Bowie, Rickman, Wilder, Wiesel, Summit, Safer, Clark, Roberts, Prince, Haggard, Feek, Ali, Howe, etc., etc.), and it’s enough to make you wonder if all this is more than just random chance. Is 2016 an anomaly, or the start of a trend?

Believe it or not, I think it’s the latter! But it’s a much more boring story than you might expect. To understand the issue, we need to consider the following two factors:

  • The world’s population is getting larger. To quote Wikipedia:

    “The last 100 years have seen a massive fourfold increase in the population, due to medical advances, lower mortality rates, an increase in agricultural productivity made possible by the Green Revolution, and of course, by people having too many babies.” —From the “Population Growth” article

    The current population of the world is estimated to be over 7.3 billion, up from just over 6 billion in 2000. More people living eventually to more people dying, so we would expect an increase in the number of deaths we see over time (in the U.S., for example, the number of total deaths increased from 1935 to 2000 even as the death rate dropped). If we assume that the ratio of “famous” people to “non-famous” people stays constant during this increase, then we also expect to see more notable deaths as well.

  • The world’s population is getting older. A growing population is one thing, but an aging population is another, and it’s aging fast: The United Nations reports that “the over 60 population is the fastest growing age group,” and estimates that by 2050, there will be more people over 60 in the world than people between 10 and 24 years old.Here, things get a little tricky: While we might glibly declare that “old people die more often than young people,” in reality this is highly dependent on where someone lives:

    “In high-income countries, 7 in every 10 deaths are among people aged 70 years and older…In low-income countries, nearly 4 in every 10 deaths are among children under 15 years, and only 2 in every 10 deaths are among people aged 70 years and older.” —The World Health Organization, “The Top 10 Causes of Death”

    Therefore, the deaths we are most likely to hear about here in the “high-income” U.S. are older people.

    Take a look back at the list of high-profile deaths above. Of the sixteen people mentioned above, the average age of death was just a hair under 72, and only two of those named were under the age of 55 (Fernández at 24 and Joey Feek at 40). Although this analysis suffers from severe selection bias and a small sample size, it appears to corroborate our larger findings.

So yes, we should expect to see more high-profile deaths than in the past, but no, I wouldn’t attribute this fact to anything nefarious. From what I can see, this rush of deaths is nothing more than a numbers game.