Get Smart, Don't Fear the Reaper

Study shows those with a university degree fear death less than those with less education

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Death is a scary prospect no matter how much education you have. But a new study indicates education and literacy levels may play a key role in how much we fear the grim reaper.

People with a university degree fear death less than those at a lower literacy level, according to a study conducted at the Department of Personality, Assessment and Psychological Treatment at the University of Granada.

The study also found that 76 percent of children report their fear of death stems from their mothers' avoidance of the topic. More of these children fear death early and adopt what researchers term unsuitable approaches in dealing with the inevitable fate that awaits us all.

The university researchers concluded that death education in the classroom would instill "a way to value life, and [would act as] an instrument to end with the misguided and unreal idea transmitted by the media."

Such education would provide children with the appropriate strategies and resources to approach death during their lives, the study determined and thereby avoid "any slight or severe negative impact on their physical or psychological health," the study authors wrote.

Severe fear of death is known as thanatophobia, when the stress and anxiety of the fear interferes with daily life. Some people fear dying while others fear being dead, an irrational fear according to philosopher Epicurus some 2,300 years ago. "[Death] does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more," he wrote.

Still, fear of the unknown, of not existing any longer, of what may or may not await individuals in the afterlife is enough to keep some people up at night. And that is when it becomes a problem. If a fear of death and dying interrupts your daily life, tell a doctor or therapist, who may be able to help with a referral or counseling. An antidepressant or antianxiety medication may help alleviate the anxiety surrounding the issue, or simply talking about death and giving voice to it might help take the edge off.

According to the University of Granada study, education is key to alleviating this fear, or at least in lessening its intensity. Researchers took a sample of 288 children between ages 8 and 12 and analyzed information offered by their teachers, tutors and parents. They looked at how adults' understanding of the concept of death informed their children's attitudes, fears and beliefs surrounding the touchy subject.

Researchers found that more girls than boys believed in an afterlife and that all of the children surveyed have had experiences related to death. Most teachers (80 percent) reported that death was not a subject within their curriculum, but some had broached the topic in certain instances, such as when a student's relative had died.

"At present, the education system does not have any formal and systematic method to deal with death in class," the study authors concluded. "If death were introduced in the education system, children would have a more real and intense approach to life, and many of the problems derived from the mourning process in adulthood would be prevented."


Approximately 2.4 million people die in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By the end of 2009, the U.S. death rate stood at 803.6 deaths per 100,000 population with an average life span of 77.9 years. Heart disease, cancer and stroke claim the most lives per year, followed by chronic lower respiratory diseases, accidents and Alzheimer's disease.  

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 3, 2010
Last Updated:
December 3, 2010