Life Expectancy - Estimating Your Own Longevity
Mary B. Young
When I was in grade school, I calculated that I would be age 52 at the turn of the century. I couldn’t begin to imagine living that long. But I did—and then some.
Which begs the question, have I gotten any better at guessing my life expectancy?
Perhaps not. When my financial planner analyzes the probability of my money lasting until I reach age 80, 85, 90, and 99, I still can’t wrap my head around it. “If you say so,” I say, staring blankly at the numbers.
It turns out I’m not alone. More than half of adults, age 50 and older, are at least five years off when they estimate how long they’re going to live, as Allen Davis discusses in a recent blog. To get some rough idea about your own life expectancy, you could look at the U. S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP)’s website, where you can see average life expectancy for all Americans, as well as those who are like you in terms of age, gender, race, and ethnicity. Allen’s article for this month’s issue of The Soloist will help you interpret the table.
These government projections are a good starting point. For a slightly more customized analysis, you can use a free, online tool. There are lots of them out there, offered by financial planning or insurance companies, research institutions, and organizations that promote longevity.
I was curious to try out these assessments, but also wary of falling for the equivalent of the Cosmopolitan quiz. I wanted something more credible.
That’s when I found a list of the twelve best life expectancy calculators on NewRetirement.com, a website I’ve visited before and trust. Here are some of the tools I tried:
Living to 100 is based on the New England Centenarian Study, a large study that Boston University’s School of Medicine has been conducting for more than 25 years. The questionnaire asks 40 questions about lifestyle, diet, family health, and medical—more than any others I tried. It helped that I’d recently had a physical so I could easily fill in my HDL, LDL and blood pressure.
Living to 100 put my life expectancy at 102 years (!). Along with the results, I also received a personalized report on how many more years I’d live if, for example, I ate fewer sweets. (Unlikely.)
- The True Vitality Test is based on Dan Beuetner’s research and best-seller Blue Zones, which identified common lifestyle characteristics of people who live in communities around the world whose residents live significantly longer than the rest of us. This test was lighter on the medical indicators than Living to 100 but includes more questions about mood, relationships, and social activities. Unfortunately, more than a year after Covid began, the project’s website still makes no mention of the Pandemic. That leaves questions about the validity of measuring anyone’s community involvement and social support against those of Blue-Zoners pre-Covid. (Even they are probably more isolated at the moment.)
Nevertheless, I completed the test, which gave me a life expectancy of 96.3 years, along with a hint that, by adopting a Blue-er lifestyle, I might live two years longer. In addition, the calculator estimated my “healthy life expectancy,” or the years (90.6) I could expect to live free from cancer, heart disease and diabetes. It’s the only tool I tried that did this.
- The Project Big Life Life-Expectancy Calculator uses Canadian data. I tried it anyway. Developed by Canada’s National Centre for Individualized Health, this tool asked more questions about physical activity than others I tried. The Center also offers a Heart Attack and Stroke Calculator and RESPECT, a tool for estimating when someone at the end of life will die.
My life expectancy, according to Project Big Life: 89 years. (Not so good, but I was happy to learn that my body’s “health age” was 20 years younger than that of the average 72-year-old Canadian woman.)
- The Actuaries Longevity Illustrator (ALI) asks only a handful of questions (age, retirement age, gender, do you smoke, and how do you rate your general health) and then provides two estimates—the likelihood that you will live to various ages (70, 75, 80, etc.), which is based on the Social Security Administration’s Mortality Tables, and how many years you might expect to live going forward from today. These are slightly different ways of answering the same question. Developed by the Society of Actuaries, a professional and educational organization, ALI is designed to help individuals weigh their “retiree financial longevity risk,” or the possibility they will run out of money before they die. Couples can use the same tool to see the likelihood that both people will live a certain number of years or that one person will outlive the other.
ALI emphasizes that it does not provide a life expectancy estimate. That’s a single number (age 85, for example) based on averages, making it a blunt instrument for assessing your risk. ALI, on the other hand, calculates the probabilities for a range of ages, so you can weigh your financial risk using more than one scenario.
ALI’s estimates about my lifespan were the most conservative. The likelihood I’ll live another ten years (to age 82) is 81 percent, it said; after that, there’s just a 39 percent chance I’ll live an additional ten (to age 92).
What I Got Out of This
Without a doubt, using these calculators left me better informed about my chances of living long, longer, or longest. I’ll feel more confident the next time I sit down with my financial planner. (No more blank stares.) I’m glad I tried them. In fact, I recommend trying more than one and comparing the results.
But these self-assessments also have limitations. They’re not intended as diagnostic tools for professionals. There are many longevity drivers they don’t address. And some of the information used in their calculations is unreliable and unverified. (People who are obese or who smoke, for example, often report they’re in good to excellent health.)1
It’s good to know whether you might live into your nineties, or even reach your own turn-of-the-century mark. But what kind of shape will you be in? I’ve watched dementia creep across three generations of my family. There’s no way to know where it’s headed next. But what I do know, with certainty, is that having a long life isn’t automatically wonderful.
1 Greenwald & Associates, Longevity Perceptions and Drivers, Society of Actuaries (2020)
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