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Pomona Professor Dents High-Profile Theory That Elderly Can Defer Death to See Next Holiday

A new study by Pomona College Professor Gary N. Smith, published in the May/June 2004 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, debunks the high-profile theory that elderly people are able to postpone dying until after holidays of great personal importance.

In the study, Smith focused on Asian American deaths near the Harvest Moon Festival, one of the most anticipated holidays by Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Americans. The holiday occurs on the 15th day of the eighth moon of the lunar calendar, and family customarily gathers for bonding and celebration, including a festival meal at midnight.

Analyzing deaths recorded by the California Department of Health Services for the years 1985 through 2000, Smith found that elderly Chinese and Vietnamese women had increased mortality during the week before the festival compared to the week following. Elderly Korean women either had more deaths before or the same number of deaths before and after the festival.

The results contradict a 1990 study, based on California data from 1960 through 1984, that found death rates for Chinese American women at least 75 years old dropped in the week before the Harvest Moon Festival and increased the week after. Reanalyzing the data in the 1990 study, Smith questions the validity of one of its key parameters.

“The statistical significance of the results,” says Smith, “hinges on whether the 15 women who died on the festival day are counted as having successfully prolonged their lives. Since the main festival activity is the midnight meal in the moonlight, it seems reasonable to count those people as not having been able to postpone their deaths for the festival celebration. If a person is really able to postpone death until after the celebration of an important ceremonial occasion, shouldn’t she be able to postpone death until after the main ceremonial activity?”

The May/June 2004 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine contains a second article that questions the validity of deferred death theory. In that article, Judith A. Skala and Kenneth E. Freedland, both of the University of Washington, reviewed 18 studies published between 1973 and 2001.

Smith, the Fletcher Jones Professor of Economics at Pomona College, is the author of “Introduction to Statistical Reasoning” (1998) and “Financial Assets, Markets and Institutions” (1993), as well as numerous articles published in professional journals. He has twice received the Pomona College Wig Distinguished Professorship Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Smith can be reached at his office by phone at (909) 624-7935 or by email at Gary.Smith@pomona.edu.

Pomona College, one of the nation’s premier liberal arts colleges, offers a comprehensive program in the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Its hallmarks include small classes, close relationships between students and faculty, and a range of student research opportunities.