More fun with life and death

I've always assumed that I'm screwed, longevity-wise. With a father and a grandfather who had heart attacks in their 60s and an uncle who had a stroke in his early 70s, I figured the genetic cards were stacked against me, at least when it comes to the odds of living a long life.

In fact, this is one of the reasons why I've decided to become much healthier over the past couple of years. But I couldn't quantify it; I didn't really know how much I was improving my chances for a longer life by eating better and exercising more. But now I know — or, at least as much as anyone can know such things.

In my last post, I discussed longevity since it's an important variable in the calculation of how much you need to save to retire. The longer you'll live, the more you need to save and/or work. Toward the end of my post, I linked to a life-estimating calculator on the website of Longevity Financial Consulting. Of course, no entity on Earth — be it a calculator, a doctor, or a crystal ball — knows exactly when you'll die. The value of these calculators is that they illustrate which characteristics lengthen and shorten estimated longevity. As you answer each of the 35 questions, your projected life expectancy is adjusted, giving you an idea of how important each characteristic or behavior is to your longevity.

I'm sure many folks might take issue with the exact numbers. For example, being a female only added one year of longevity, as compared to being a male. That's not enough for me to get a sex change. Plus, most actuarial studies I've read say that women live, on average, two to five years longer than men (the gap narrows as age increases). But my hunch is that the calculator has it right when it comes to which characteristics and behaviors are life-prolonging and life-shortening.

The good news for me is, I may not be as doomed as I thought. Here are how some of the highlights from my analysis.

At my current age (43), the calculator starts off assuming I'll make it to 74. These are the factors that added years to my projected life:

  • A healthy diet (one year), including breakfast every day (another year)
  • Having a graduate degree (two years) — my master's degree in education will finally pay off!
  • Regular, intense exercise (two years), which has resulted in an “athletic” weight/build (an additional two years)
  • I don't smoke, which gives me four more years as compared to someone who smokes a pack a day
  • I rarely drink alcohol (one year)
  • I enjoy my job (one year)

Now, the factors that reduced my life expectancy:

  • My dad's and grandfather's coronary histories (three years)
  • The amount of miles I drive took away a year, but always using a seat belt added a year, so driving is a wash
  • The tool assumes six hours of sleep, which is about where I am, but I could add a year by getting eight hours of sleep
  • My anxiety and stress level, which can make me less happy (six years)

That last one was the real wake-up for me. I tend to be an “awfulizer” — I'm usually worried that something horrible will happen to my family, my job, the economy, or the world. I'm known at Motley Fool HQ for four things: 1) borderline inappropriate Halloween costumes, 2) giving away a CD of holiday songs each year, 3) dropping my pants in company meetings, and 4) being the most anxious person in the building. Of course, knowing that my stress level could shorten my life just makes me more anxious, which further reduces my life expectancy. It's a self-reinforcing cycle. If I keep this up, I'll die tomorrow.

Survey says…

Despite my sub-optimal attitude, the news from the longevity calculator is generally good: My life expectancy moved up to 83, so I've added almost a decade to my possible lifespan by choosing a healthy lifestyle. The calculator is kind enough to actually count the days I have left: 14,400. Finally, while I'm actually 43, I have a “Virtual Age” of 35, which either means I'm as healthy as a 35-year-old or that my online avatar looks 35.

The real takeaway for me is this: While I've been worrying that my family health history would shorten my life, all the worrying could actually be worse. I gotta work on that.

But I think I'm on the right track, especially with all the exercise. I'm not only concerned about the length of life, but also the quality. I know plenty of people who are in their 80s and even 90s, but many of them are not in decent enough health to enjoy it. Some of this just happens with age, but some of it is also the lifelong accumulation of unhealthy habits. Retirement will stink if you're too sick or sore to enjoy it.

Fortunately, I do have a relative who is more like what I hope to be: my Aunt Joan, who is almost 81, rides her bike several miles at a time, after she wakes up before dawn to feed her cows, chickens, turkeys, and rabbits (that weigh 25 pounds each). I likely won't have a farm in my 80s, but I hope to be just as active for as long as possible.

He looks relaxed. Add 6 years to his score.

Finally, as you begin to formulate your resolutions for 2013, perhaps the results of your own trip through the longevity calculator will provide some clues as to what you could work on — and a little extra motivation to work on it. Increasing the chances that you'll live a few extra years might provide a jolt of motivation to eat better, exercise more, smoke and drink less, sleep more, and stop being so dang worried about everything.

More about...Health & Fitness, Psychology, Retirement

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Vanessa
Vanessa
7 years ago

I’m almost 36 with a virtual age of 48 and a life expectancy of 60. Those numbers are kind of comforting in a strange way. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to save enough for retirement so knowing that I won’t need as much takes away a lot of the worry. I’m also the youngest in my family and I don’t have kids. By the time I reach retirement age, everyone I care about will have passed on so who am I trying to extend my life for anyway? I will still continue to save in case the worst… Read more »

Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
7 years ago
Reply to  Vanessa

I’m the opposite of you, Vanessa. I’m 30 with a virtual age of 18 and a life expectancy of over 90.

I look at those calculations and see that I’ve got to make sure we sock a lot away in order to not worry about being a burden when I age.

Although ironically, I guess if I worried about it more, my life expectancy would drop and it’d be less of an issue, huh?

Orrin
Orrin
7 years ago

Ah nice article. Thanks for sharing!

Just one little concern: It says you’ll get an extra year of living just by sleeping an extra 2 hours a night, right?

If you life to 83, that means you’ll be here for another 40 years.

2 hours extra sleep for 40 years
is almost 30,000 hours… or 3.5 years…

So you’ll have to spend an extra 3.5 years sleeping, just to gain 1 more year of life! As much as I love sleeping, there’s something not quite right about that 😉

getagrip
getagrip
7 years ago

The calculators can be an eye openner, but in the end it’s just an estimate and every financial planner will try to get you to figure 20-30 years past your 9-5 retirement date anyway. The biggest thing is to be active, physically, mentally, and socially. Those I’ve seen do best with aging are engaged at all three levels for a long time baring any serious illness or accidents. If you aren’t you just end up either existing and your age at death is irrelevant or fading out fast in which case the calculator wasn’t valid.

Holly
Holly
7 years ago
Reply to  getagrip

You are spot-on.

My grandfather died recently at the age of 95. He died at home, active and fully independent for all but the last few weeks. And all of this despite living with multiple chronic health conditions for two decades.

He’d been physically active his entire life, and volunteered 20 hours a week for his 30 post-retirement years. The volunteer job kept him mentally active and helped him build new friendships as the friends of his youth passed away.

Justin@TheFrugalPath
7 years ago

Looking at your family history can give you a good picture. Unless you had family members who died from smoking, drinking ect… In which case you take those items into consideration.
Thanks for linking the calculator.

k
k
7 years ago

In the 70s, I had one of those 25 pd rabbits. A “French Lop”.

I had a leash for “Droopy” and we would walk around the neighborhood.

Every walk, some adult would slam on the brakes and ask what type of dog was that and why did it walk so wierd?

Eventually we made the local paper with a story and a picture.

TB at BlueCollarWorkman
TB at BlueCollarWorkman
7 years ago

I did the longevity calculator too and found out that it thinks I’ll make it into my early 90s…and it says that I was absurdly young right now…17 or something, lol, if only.

But it was neat to see the things that add to or take away our lives. I guess none of it was particularly surprising, but still, neat to see what the doctors say in action.

And like you, I need to get more sleep.

TB at BlueCollarWorkman
TB at BlueCollarWorkman
7 years ago

Oh, and that Aunt Joan of yours is awesome — I want to be like that when I’m old and wrinkly too. Walking around, doing stuff — never stop moving and you’ll never stop moving until you die! 🙂

Jen from Boston
Jen from Boston
7 years ago

Last week I went to a panel discussion about aging. A member of the panel, orthopedic surgeon[?] Dr. Vonda Wright (her books are on Amazon), said that our bodies were made to move, and to keep in shape we have to keep moving! Also, the nutritionist on the panel said that it isn’t our weight that matters, but WHERE the weight is and WHAT makes up our weight, e.g., body fat % vs. lean muscle. Well, she mentioned the wasit-hip ratio, and that you want it at .8 or less. As you approach 1.0 you start to get into trouble… Read more »

DPF
DPF
7 years ago

Excellent post, and thoughts for many of us to ponder as we think about goals and the new year.

The reality is that no matter what – money, relationships, health – the decisions we make individually have a huge role in our sucess. While we obviously can’t personally control everything, we can put the odds in our favor with good decisions.

In the end, if we don’t have health, the other areas of life – including wealth – are going to be severely compromised. Best to make good decisions and enjoy every single day.

Julie
Julie
7 years ago

These calculators scare the dickens out of me. I have now done 2 different tests of this type (the recommended link above included), and both have gives me results that I will live past 100. For my retirement planning I have figured I will live to my late 80s.

Joe Cassandra
Joe Cassandra
7 years ago

Hi Robert, love how you add that your education has added to your lifespan, when you are constantly adding new creative ideas and investing in yourself, you are a happier human!

Happiness always adds on to your life and you get in places you never would think.

Great work on exercising! Definitely something my wife and I need to work on in the new year.

Lucillep
Lucillep
7 years ago

Why not enjoy life one day at a time? I prefer quality over quantity any time. I don’t want to die old!

Matt at Healthy N' Wealthy
Matt at Healthy N' Wealthy
7 years ago

It’s scary how the choices we make can affect the length of our existence. I think the key is to find a happy medium. Like Robert said, if eating healthy and exercising cause you to stress out or lose sleep, then it defeats the purpose. The ideal solution is to find something that works fo you, ie that you enjoy, or can at least tolerate. Maybe you hate gyms: buy some dumbbells or a treadmill and workout at home. Maybe you love watching lots of TV: stretch and do knee pushups while watching your guilty pleasures. Also, Robert, you have… Read more »

joan
joan
7 years ago

Pants-dropping in the office would most certainly shorten my career, which would induce significantly more stress and therefore shave more years off my life expectancy!

partgypsy
partgypsy
7 years ago

Well not sure how accurate that survey is. Had taking birth control as reducing life span (haven’t heard that one before). As far as relative’s life span, I’ve had a great grandfather die of a gunshot wound, a grandfather die of TB, and a great grandmother washed away in a flood (all young, in their 30’s). Another great grandmother was elderly when she died in a car accident (but probably would have lived much longer). If I don’t include those outliers then I’m supposed to live to 81. But as the above examples show, you never know what’s going to… Read more »

Ivy
Ivy
7 years ago
Reply to  partgypsy

And the birth control question had options that didn’t make it clear where you belong if you (1) take the pill and (2) are over 30 and (3) don’t smoke. Somehow this particular combination didn’t fit on the scale

partgypsy
partgypsy
7 years ago
Reply to  Ivy

Exactly. They didn’t have the option that fit me. And for that category the evidence suggests that the bc pill if anything increases life expectancy.

Peach
Peach
7 years ago

Interesting. I’ll probably never use a calculator but I agree that stress, worry and anxiety are awful to live with. Also, I don’t know anyone who gets enough sleep. It’s a widespread problem. Probably linked to all the stress and anxiety we’re living with.

krantcents
krantcents
7 years ago

Ihave genetics on my side and will probably live to 100 years old. I am planning for 30 years in retirement and I will retire again at age 70 years old.

flybigd
flybigd
7 years ago

Can I come to one of your meetings? Or go trick or treating with you?

stellamarina
stellamarina
7 years ago

One of the reasons your Aunt Joan is doing so well is because she has the animals. Something that she has to tend and get up for every morning. Having people, pets or plants that depend on you increases longevity.

Lisa @ Thriftability
Lisa @ Thriftability
7 years ago

I agree with some of the other comments on this post – although I continue to work on saving for retirement, and should be OK in that regard… unless they have found the fountain of youth or a miracle time-machine, I will likely be OK with coming to the end at my scheduled life expectancy age – 77 years old. Great post, Robert – thanks for the link to the longevity calculator!

Wm
Wm
7 years ago

I feel that a person’s quality of living should be amazing even if the quantity is less. We should be able to wake up every morning feeling what a wonderful and exciting life we have to look forward to. It’s obviously not going to happen every single day, but having that feeling a majority of days in itself is a success. There are definitely factors that will prolong this feel-good factor in life. Like having a support system of friends and family, a great job that is challenging but still doesn’t stress you to death, physical and mental well-being and… Read more »

EMH
EMH
7 years ago

I don’t care if I am really old when I die as long as I don’t FEEL really old.

Ramblin' Ma'am
Ramblin' Ma'am
7 years ago

People in my family tend to die early, but then, most of them were pack-a-day smokers. I’ve used a couple calculators and they usually have me living to between 73-77 (I’m about to turn 30). Of course, I COULD live to be 95, but knowing I probably won’t makes me more determined not to be one of those people who “live to retire.” I don’t want to promise myself I’ll travel the world at 65 and then end up dying a few years later.

rosarugosa
rosarugosa
7 years ago

Great post as always, Robert. DH & I quit smoking this year and are starting to do some walking/hiking. Without the cigarettes, we might actually make it to retirement age, so that’s another incentive to lay a good financial groundwork for the future!

Shyra Smith
Shyra Smith
7 years ago

Great post. Thanks for sharing such great ideas. I’ll also try the longevity calculator. Although I try to maintain a very healthy lifestyle, who knows which of my activities are adding or subtraction years from my life!!

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