One Thing You Can't Put Off: Death

By Kathy A. Svitil|Sunday, May 01, 2005

A popular motif in American folklore is that terminally ill patients can postpone their passing until after an important holiday or birthday or until they are surrounded by loved ones. If you know of such an instance, it’s only a “happy coincidence,” says Donn Young, who recently conducted the first rigorous study of death postponement in a large population. He found no evidence that people can control the timing of a natural death. “Death doesn’t keep to any of our schedules,” he says. “It has its own schedule.”

Young, a biostatistician at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, and his colleague Erinn Hade examined the records of 309,221 people who died from cancer in Ohio over a 12-year period. They looked to see if there was a reduction in the number of deaths in the week before Christmas and Thanksgiving and before each individual’s birthday. Overall, the researchers found no decrease in deaths during those weeks. Young and Hade did find a slight rise in the number of African Americans who died in the week before Thanksgiving. “We haven’t the foggiest idea what is going on there,” Young says. They also saw an increase in the number of women dying before their birthday. A few smaller studies have found the opposite effect—women dying more often after their birthday—which suggests an unexplained statistical wrinkle. “If it was a real effect, you’d expect some consistency between studies,” he says, “and it isn’t there.”

Although he was not surprised at the findings, Young says he has received negative e-mail messages from people accusing him of taking away hope. “We are not. We hope that the patient survives these events,” he says. “The real message we want to get across is that if you have a loved one who is dying of a terminal illness and a special event is coming up, celebrate it now. Give them an early gift of your love and friendship and time and attention.” 

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