Photo: Flickr/Amy Loves Yah
We are 14 per cent more likely to die on our birthday than any other dayIt’s my birthday next week, and I don’t often relish the occasion. I have none of the usual existential hang-ups about getting one year older – I just don’t like the pressure of having to organise a party and cake and co-ordinate all my friends to be in the same place as me at the same time.
But now I have a bona fide reason to be wary of next Wednesday – I might die. Of course, I might die today or indeed any day, but, according to research published last month in Annals of Epidemiology, I am at increased risk of dying on my actual birthday. Not just me – you too.
Researchers found that, on average, people were 14 per cent more likely to die on their birthday than any other day. The study only looked at natural causes of death, so the statistical anomaly couldn’t be confounded by other things that might be brought on by people celebrating excessively, for example. Still, heart attacks rose 18.6 per cent on birthdays, strokes by 21.5 per cent.
This would suggest that, in some way, people can delay dying until a significant date. In fact, this phenomenon has been known for some time. Several studies since the 1980s have found strange patterns in mortality statistics. One found that death rates among Jewish men dropped by 25 per cent before Passover, an event in which they take a lead role. Similarly, researchers looking at death rates in Chinese women found a 35 per cent decrease in the days leading up to the Harvest Moon festival. In both cases, there was a corresponding peak in death rates in the days after the holidays.
As a doctor, I have seen several patients who were about to die hold out until a family member arrived at their bedside. The famous historical example is that of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence. As he lay dying, aged 83, he turned to his physician and asked “Is it the Fourth yet?”, and received the reply: “It soon will be.” He held out for several more hours, dying just before 1am on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration.
In a further twist, his friend and fellow signatory John Adams, the nation’s second president, died, aged 90, on the same day, also apparently determined not to go until he saw in the anniversary.
Of course, this could be startling coincidence. We are programmed to see patterns where there are none, and to draw conclusions of causality when events are just random. It could be that, as a significant date approaches, people are particularly conscientious about taking their medication, or perhaps families or health care professionals rally round them and provide increased levels of care.
Similarly, plenty of people die just before a special date, or before a loved one can get to their bedside in time. But, still, the evidence suggests that, in certain circumstances, the human mind has some limited control over when the moment of death occurs.
What makes this startling is that it runs contrary to the way we view the body. Contemporary understanding sees it as a machine. Just as a car breaks down whether you have reached your destination or not, so when the body stops working, that’s it, it’s over. The mind and the body are, according to this model, entirely separate. This is a legacy of Descartes, who expounded the mind/body dichotomy which declares them to be independent, distinct, unrelated entities.
According to this model, a psychological factor, such as wanting to live until a special date or see a loved one, cannot have an impact on something as physical as death. And yet it would seem that it can.
Evidence also shows that in the first year after a spouse dies, for the widowed partner, there is a 67 per cent increase in heart attacks, with a 40 per cent increase in death rate. So you can die of a broken heart, although the current medical understanding of the body doesn’t allow for this.
I think the problems that the mind/body split brings are far-reaching. There’s a strong tendency in medicine to see things as either psychological or physical, and a denial that there can be any interaction between the two. Until medicine truly accepts that the mind and the body are interrelated, we will never see patients and their experiences of illness in a holistic way that does them justice. Instead, they will receive an inferior, impoverished experience of health care.
I suspect that in years to come, as our understanding of neurology increases, we’ll look back and find it incredible that medicine could have failed to see the power of the mind. I hope I’m around to see that day, so I’m going to take extra care when I blow out those candles next week. I don’t want it to be the last breath I take.
End this ‘troubleshooter’ madness
As hospital wards are closed and services are reduced across the NHS, and as the country groans under the strain of ever-deepening recession, it appears there are still some for whom the economic difficulties have yet to have an impact.
Tim Bolt, a financial “troubleshooter”, is receiving £2,000 a day, on a six-month contract, from Queen’s Hospital in Burton, Staffordshire. That would equate to a salary of more than £500,000. His task is to save £19 million from the budget, including cuts that will make 150 staff redundant. The hospital has already paid out £2.3 million to six companies, including Mr Bolt’s, for financial advice. Mr Bolt’s company is also providing a “programme office lead” to help Mr Bolt, at a further cost of £200,000 during his six months.
What is going on here? The culture of employing external “consultants” in the NHS has crept in, and few people ever question it. It is mind-boggling that this situation is considered even remotely acceptable. If the hospital’s managers aren’t managing its financial difficulties, what are they doing all day?
Employing an outside consultant is an admission of their own inadequacy in a job they are paid to do themselves.
Let’s not be ageist about bikinis
ŠNancy Dell’Olio was doing her bit to tackle age discrimination last week when she took to ITV’s This Morning sofa to defend, with some passion, older women who wear bikinis. “It’s about how you look and feel, not about an age limit,” she said. I completely agree. Certainly, the way that much of our society views the ageing body reveals the contempt with which it treats older people in general.
Women should take a leaf out of men’s books – they are completely deluded as to how they look in swimwear. I went to Hampstead Ponds at the weekend and, while there were no older women wearing bikinis, I spotted numerous older, corpulent gentlemen who had no qualms about flashing their flesh in eye-wateringly skimpy Speedos. What’s more, they seemed to revel in the attention they were getting – from people horrified at what was on display.
Max Pemberton’s latest book, ‘The Doctor Will See You Now’, is published by Hodder. To order a copy, call Telegraph Books on 0844 871 1515, or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
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