Earlier this month I wrote about Micromorts and Microlives, referencing a New Scientist cover feature from May 2015. Since then I have read the book mentioned in those pieces, “The Norm Chronicles: Stories and numbers about danger” by David Spiegelhalter and Michael Blastland).
It’s an entertaining and detailed look at risk and the different ways we can either extend or shorten our life expectancy. There are fictional stories about Norm (an “average guy … looking for a safe path through life”), Prudence (who “treads warily, all anxious glances … one scary story is all that fear needs to set fire to her imagination”) and the Kevlin brothers (“risk junkies who fly by the seat of their pants”). Their fictional lives are used to illustrate over 20 chapters about danger and statistics, with headings including Infancy, Violence, Vaccination, Drugs, Gambling, Transport and Surgery.
In the sections about childhood we learn just how safe it is, statistically, to be a 7 year old now compared to any other age, or to any other time in history. Despite parental fears about accidental deaths from drowning, or from crossing the road, more children die from being strangled by cords on window blinds than are drowned or killed as pedestrians. The figures for all accidental deaths for children aged 5-9 are the lowest they have ever been. There is, literally, a one in a million chance annually of a child of primary school age drowning or being killed while crossing the road. This might not help to calm every parent’s fears: what if that one in a million was your child? This is the kind of question that leaves the authors’ character Prudence in a permanent state of anxiety.
Most of the nuggets, the easy-to-remember lifestyle choices that you can adopt every day, were mentioned in my earlier piece, having been summarized from that New Scientist article. For example, smoking 2 cigarettes is the equivalent of a Micromort (reduces your life expectancy by 30 minutes), but the first 20 minutes of exercise is a Microlife (increases your life expectancy by 30 minutes). The first unit of alcohol in a day is worth a Microlife but each subsequent unit is worth half a Micromort. Tucked away in the tables towards the end of the book is another useful nugget for those of us who eat our 5 portions of fruit and vegetables every day: it’s worth an extra 4 Microlives per day. That’ll do me. Pass the broccoli please.