Going out in a blaze of glory?

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was produced by the Winton programme for the public understanding of risk based in the Statistical Laboratory in the University of Cambridge. The aim was to help improve the way that uncertainty and risk are discussed in society, and show how probability and statistics can be both useful and entertaining.

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I got a mention on last Sunday’s Broadcasting House on Radio 4 as suggesting it was reasonable that older people should take more risks in their lives.

This came from an article in the Sunday Independent, which
quoted me as saying

I think it's completely rational for people to do more dangerous things as they get older. Your natural background risk of dying is greater anyway, and you've done your bit, so why not go out in glory?

which to be honest I can't remember saying, but it sounds fine.

In discussions with the journalist I was trying to find other information on whether older people are more cautious when engaging in higher-risk activities. For example, out of 450 men killed on motorcycles in 2008 in England and Wales, 125 (28%) were aged 45 or over and 11 were over 70. But this is difficult to interpret as I can’t find data on how many aging bikers there are or how far they travel each year: I am quite prepared to believe that older might well be safer than younger when on a motorbike.

So why should it be reasonable to take more risks when you get older? As many psychological studies have shown, attitude to risk is strongly influenced by the background level. Let’s compare me with someone 30 years my junior. Out of 2500 26-year old men (about as many as in Manchester), we would expect 2 to die before they reach 27 - one from natural causes, and one from non-natural causes such as accidents. For the same number of people my age, we would also expect one to die from non-natural causes before they are 57, but a rather disconcerting 14 to die from natural causes. So putting a bit more risk into my life does not, relatively speaking, add much to my background 'force of mortality' (to use an ancient but rather graphic phrase) , even if my age means I am exposed to greater risks than a younger person trying the same activity.

Also, an average 26-year-old man can expect to live another 51 years, even without any future gains in medical care, whereas my life expectancy is only a further 24 years. So if I suffer a fatal accident now through my risky behaviour, I am not losing so many years of life, as well as saving the NHS and my pension fund the costs of a lengthy decline. Of course it would be a shame if something did happen to me, but I am still off this summer to try my third 20,000 ft peak.

Another way of putting numbers on risks is through the 'micromort', which is a 1-in-a-million chance of death. The numbers above mean that an average 56-year-old is exposed to around 40 micromorts a year through non-natural causes, and around 560 from illness. According to the Health and Safety Executive, each scuba-dive is around 5 micromorts, hang-gliding around 8, and just 6 miles on a motorbike would expose me to a micromort, and so I could soon notch up more than my standard 40 a year if only I dared.

The article also described me as ‘a keen mountaineer’, which is a huge exaggeration as I only like trekking peaks.



Another interesting article thanks, but isn't it 400 and 5600 micromorts rather than 40 and 560? This would reassure me that the population is actually doing something. Regards, Nick

Gary King made this point in a invited graduation speech a few months ago: Q: why is it that graduation speakers always recommend boldness (=taking bigger risks). A: because the risks taken by people who get to speak at graduations turned out better, so they think them worthwhile. Unstated implication: data without that selection bias suggest that new graduates ought to be more cautious, not less, and leave the risk taking to the old folk. CP