Some acquaintances recently paddled surfboards and kayaks into the Pacific to disperse a relative’s ashes where he loved to surf. During the memorial service, one brother of the deceased expressed concern about the risk from sharks.

The image of an aggressive shark in the deep ocean is graphic and terrifying, but the risk of mundane threats far outweighs the risk from shark attack. The dead man’s brother should worry much more about heart disease, which felled his brother, and devote his attention to lowering that and similar risks. There is only so much time and energy; each unit of energy spent on lowering the risk from sharks is one less unit that can be spent on hearts.

What should we fear? What threats are most likely to kill us? Setting aside cataclysmic events such as nuclear wars and planet-altering meteorites, there are some risks that generate a lot of fear but few deaths, such as shark attacks, terrorism, and killings by police. On the other end of the spectrum are everyday risks that kill a large number, such as heart disease and cancer. In between are risks from motor vehicle collisions and the seasonal flu. And this year is a new risk: COVID-19.

This is from David R. Henderson and Charles L. Hooper, “What Should We Fear Most and What Should We Do About It?, Regulation, Winter 2020-21.

Another excerpt:

Larger risks / The typical American faces much greater risk of death from comparatively mundane causes. Heart disease kills about 1 in 502 Americans each year, while cancer kills 1 in 542.

The number of deaths from seasonal flu varies significantly from year to year, but it has averaged about 40,000 in the United States in recent years, which works out to 1 death in 8,125 Americans. The good news is that rate has fallen significantly over the decades; if the death rate from flu in the 1950s and 1960s were applied to today’s population, we would see over 160,000 deaths per year.

If the death rates from these diseases seem high, it is because they are. Heart disease alone kills as many Americans each year as the combined U.S. combat casualties from all American wars.

Read the whole thing and check out our table.