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Psychosomatic Medicine:
Letters to the Editor

Postponing Death: Additional Studies on Mortality Rates and Symbolically Meaningful Dates

Smith, Gary PhD

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Department of Economics, Pomona College, Claremont, CA

Skala and Freeland’s review (1) of research regarding mortality rates around symbolically meaningful occasions overlooked four relevant papers. Skala and Freedland observe that Phillips’ (2) study of the deaths of famous Americans near their birthdays counts all deaths that occurred in the birth month as having occurred after the birthday. Royer and Smith (3) find that the results hinge on this assumption. For example, a reexamination of Phillips’ most statistically persuasive data, the deceased in Four Hundred Notable Americans, found that of the 26 people who died during their birth months, 13 died before their birthdays, one died on his birthday, and 12 died after their birthdays.

Phillips et al. (4) report that Chinese and Japanese Americans believe the number 4 is unlucky and have abnormally high cardiac mortality on the fourth day of the month. Smith (5) shows that this conclusion is based on the omission of several types of heart disease that have the opposite pattern. The elevated mortality in Phillips’ pruned subset is not present in independent presample and postsample data. Also, there are no statistically persuasive patterns in suicides or accidental deaths or on other lucky or unlucky days. Similarly, Panesar et al. (6) are unable to replicate Phillips’ findings using independent data for Hong Kong Chinese people.

Phillips et al. (7) report that Chinese Americans are particularly vulnerable to diseases that Chinese astrology and traditional Chinese medicine associate with their birth years. In my own unpublished reexamination of the data, I found that many diseases were inexplicably excluded from the original study; some diseases that were included have ambiguous links to birth years and the statistical tests were indirect. A more complete statistical analysis and independent data do not replicate the original results.

Gary Smith, PhD

Department of Economics

Pomona College

Claremont, CA

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1. Skala JA, Freedland KE. Death takes a raincheck. Psychosom Med 2004;66:383–6.

2. Phillips DP. Deathday and birthday: an unexpected connection. In: Tanur JM, ed. Statistics: A Guide to the Unknown. San Francisco: Holden-Day; 1972:52–65.

3. Royer H, Smith G. Can the famous really postpone death? Soc Biol 1998;45:302–5.

4. Phillips DP, Liu GC, Kwok K, et al. The Hound of the Baskervilles effect: natural experiment on the influence of psychological stress on timing of death. BMJ 2001;323:1443–6.

5. Smith G. Scared to death? BMJ 2002;325:1442–3.

6. Panesar NS, Chan NCY, Li SN, et al. Is four a deadly number for the Chinese? Med J Aust 2003;179:656–8.

7. Phillips DP, Ruth TE, Wagner LM. Psychology and survival. Lancet 1993;342:1142–5.

Copyright © 2004 by American Psychosomatic Society