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Estimating Life Expectancy Not an Easy Task

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question. I am 59-years old and in the process of modifying my financial plan for retirement.  I have no idea how long I will live.  How do we go about making some best guesses?  Do I base my calculations on the age of my parents who both are in their 8os?

Answer.  If we only knew our exit date, we would be the most effective planners on the planet.

A great deal of research has been conducted to predict length of life.  Studies have addressed  the role of education, lifestyle, social connections, exercise, nutrition, family history, stress, personality, current health, types of work, miles one drives and more.

Some new light has been shed on the subject by Howard S. Friedman and Leslie S. Martin in their book The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study (Hudson Press, 2011).

These authors continued a study conducted 60 years ago by psychologist Lewis Terman who, in addition to developing the Stanford-Binet IQ test, studied the ongoing lives of 1,528 San Francisco 11-year olds for social predictors of intellectual leadership.  According to the New York Times, Friedman and Martin “pored through Terman’s records, dredged up death certificates, interviewed their survivors” and collaborated with many others.  The authors extended Terman’s 60-year old research for another 20 years, studying a single set of individuals from youth to death.

In this eight- decade project, Friedman and Martin found that conscientiousness was the best childhood predictor of longevity.  Based on an interview with New York Times journalist Katherine Bouton, the authors offered three explanations why the dominant role of conscientiousness was important.

  1. Conscientious people are more likely to live a healthy lifestyle and do not smoke or drink excessively.  They wear seat belts, follow doctor’s orders and take medication as directed.
  2. They are in healthier relationships, happier marriages, healthier work situations and better friendships.
  3. Friedman and Martin also found people are not only predisposed to being conscientious, but also to be healthier.  They are less prone to diseases and not just those due to dangerous habits.  Although the physiological explanation is unknown, the authors believe it has something to do with the levels of serotonin in the brain.

The best social predictor of a long life was a strong social network. Widows outlive widowers –one speculated reason is that women tend to have stronger people connections.

And then there is the subject of stress.  Friedman noted in the interview that there is a misconception that we should lead stress-free lives.  He dispels the myth.

“A hard job that is also stressful can be associated with longevity,” he said.

“If people were working hard, succeeded, were responsible – no matter what field they were in – they were more likely to live longer.”

There is, however, bad stress.  An example is those who are stressed because they stayed in a job they didn’t like or didn’t perform well in the job.  These folks were more likely to die young.

The Longevity Project does not necessarily dismiss the results of studies that identify other aspects of a long life.

For example, a recent study from Boston University identified 150 unique genetic markers by analyzing the DNA of the world’s oldest people.  Taken together these markers are linked to extreme longevity.

The lifestyles of centenarians in the U.S. and those living in what is known as the Blue Zones –places with the highest concentration of people 100 and older —  who are living the longest healthiest lives have added to our knowledge.

Check out some life expectancy calculators such as http://apps.bluezones.com/vitality/ and http://www.livingto100.com/.

My life expectancy was 93 years for the first and 104 years for the second.  Quite a spread.  And 104 years seems a bit long.

How many years should you plan to live?  Consider more than the ages of your parents.   Many financial planners assume their clients will live to at least 93 years.

Thank you for your good questions and best wishes for a long, healthy life with the financial security you are creating.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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