Ask-Hole is a regular column in which Broadly investigates questions you probably already knew the answers to, but we didn't, so here it is. Do you have a question about honestly anything at all? Ask us about it.
My whole life—from my monobrowed teen virgin years to present day—there’s always been one kind of story I've loved to read above all others: Tales of people who died alone, and were left decomposing for indeterminate periods of time before the smell became overpowering and neighbors notified the authorities.
In 2006, the remains of Joyce Vincent were found in her London flat, where she'd lain undiscovered for nearly three years after her death, television still blaring. George Bell was only dead a week before his body was found, but only because he'd left his car on the wrong side of the street and his neighbor noticed the parking tickets piling up. These stories made headlines around the world, and caused many people to question who'd look out for them, if they suddenly stopped leaving their home. Would anyone notice any irregularities in their routine? Would they, too, be like Bell and Vincent—unnoticed and unmourned?
When I can’t sleep at night, I often lie in bed and calculate the odds that I, too, will end up rotting and ignored in a flat. It’s a theme I return to, time and again, in my work, whether I'm asking psychics how likely I am to expire alone (they were more concerned by my hair), or consulting cat behavioral experts about whether your cat would eat you if you suddenly died (probably not).
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But how likely am I, really, to see out the end of my days alone? So far, I only have the testimony of a few psychics and my close friends (who think that a lonely death is likely on account of my being such a self-involved asshole). I needed definitive answers, and I needed them fast, so I asked statistical expert Alan Salzberg of consulting firm Salt Hill Statistics. Am I going to die alone? Here’s what he had to say.
BROADLY: Hi Alan, thanks for talking to me. So from a statistical point of view, how would you define someone dying alone?
ALAN SALZBERG: Traditionally when we think of people dying alone, we tend to think of people dying without children. If you have children, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll die without having living children.
So we should have children if we’re terrified of dying alone?
Sure, and most women do have children, although if you’re already a certain age, like 50, then you’re very unlikely to have children, whereas if you’re younger you’re much more likely to have kids. For women who don’t have children, the probability of dying alone is much higher because women live longer. As there are very few men as you get older and older, the likelihood of dying alone becomes more probable. [Editor's note: Assuming you aren't in a relationship with another woman, that is.] A lot of that depends on your health though. Do you feel like you’re in good health and you’re going to live a long time? Then you may be in trouble. You’re much more likely to die alone.
So if you’re scared of dying alone, is it a good idea to be really unhealthy?
Sure, so if you don’t want to die alone, you should try to die early, I guess.
Are dying young or having children your two main options then when it comes to not dying alone?
Yeah, so you need to die early or have children. Having children really helps.
Any other factors to be aware of?
In a general sense, wealthier and more educated people tend to live longer, because they have access to better healthcare. And factors like depression also affect life span. But people are only extremely depressed if they’re very poor, not just a little bit poor. So I guess if you’re very poor and very depressed, you’re probably going to die early and maybe not be alone. But that’s not a good outcome either.