Life expectancy and the bonus years

By all means have a tantrum when you discover just how long you are likely to live.

By all means have a tantrum when you discover just how long you are likely to live.

The bonus years? This blog has a new name. It is now called “Boot camp for the bonus years” (instead of “for old age”). The bonus years are the years we will live beyond our subconscious life expectancy. Here’s what I mean.

Average life expectancy

 First, a quote from Statistics New Zealand.

We can never know precisely how long we’ll live, but statistics show:
  • New Zealanders are living progressively longer
  • women live longer than men
  • death rates continue to decline at all ages
  • life expectancy increases further for each additional year we live.

In other words, the older you are now, the older you can expect to be when you die. 

What the heck? Yes, that’s the story. A 3-year-old New Zealand girl can expect to live until 83 years — but the average 75-year-old New Zealand woman has a life expectancy of 89.2–90. 

So there you have it: I can expect to live to around 90 years. Or can I? Not exactly. After all, some New Zealand 75-year-old women will die at 90, others will die before 80 and some will live to 100. But how about me?

Individual life expectancy

The average prediction of 90 years of life is enough to do my head in, but I could have got used to that. However, I am not the average person in my cohort. Nor is anyone. I am me, you are you, we are us, and they are them, and none of us is average. So an average life expectancy figure is meaningless for individuals. 

If like me you have been lucky enough to dodge cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and arthritis and reach 75 in excellent health, you are pretty sure to outlive your grandparents, who lived in more difficult times. On top of that, if like me you happen to be female, live in New Zealand, have good nutrition and exercise habits, and inherit a happiness gene or two, you may be handed a decade of bonus years on a plate. Whether you like it or not, you are likely to grow very old.

Today I used four online calculators that claim to estimate my personal life expectancy.

  • University of Pennsylvania researchers give me 94 years (with a 5% chance of dying before 79 or after 108).
  • The Canadian Public Health calculator says I’ll live to 97.8 years old.
  • AMP (an insurance company) asks 33 questions and offers me 98 years.
  • XrX (a health and fitness company) predicts that I will live to 115.9 years old.

Extreme old age is increasingly thrust upon us, whether we like it or not. I’m guessing 97 is a reasonable estimate, given my personal lifestyle and health history. That's not LOL but OMG.

So I’d better get used to it. But it's not easy.

Subconscious life expectancy

 We also have an instinctive, subjective, subtle, intensely personal, not always rational expectation that we will live to a particular age. This expectation may be conscious or may lurk unacknowledged in our subconscious. It’s built on assumptions and life experience and a patchy understanding of statistics. 

Your subconscious life expectancy may exert considerable power. I didn’t even know I had one until it was blown to smithereens by the facts.

All my grandparents died in their mid-eighties, and deep inside I supposed I would do the same. But one day I discovered that my instinctive life expectancy of 84 was seriously inaccurate. (Yes yes, I know I could become fatally ill or disabled tomorrow, but the odds are against it.)

Arithmetic is not my strong suit, but I can calculate the difference between 84 and 97. Out of the blue I have been granted 13 bonus years. 

Grown-ups throw tantrums when granted bonus years

When I first discovered that I was likely to live long past my imaginary due-date was a bloody big smack in the face. I launched into the longest loudest tantrum in the southern hemisphere. 

My hissy fit lasted about 24 hours.  Then I started to think about the implications. 

Then I thought, Okaaaaay. If I’m truly stuck with these extra years, better make them good ones.

Then I began to notice other implications of these bonus years. I’ve still got enough time to do almost anything I want. Hell’s bells, I could become a brain surgeon!

The first 75 years just kind of happened to me. Now it’s time to pay attention. Suddenly, preparing for old age is an issue. That’s why I am doing my personal boot camp. 

Feel the fury and let it go

I suspect this rage-against-the-bonus-years is a common syndrome.  I know two other people who became homicidal or clinically depressed when told they would live longer than expected. But in each case the news was a timely alarm, because after our tantrums we’ve all decided to make our next 10–20 years the best they can possibly be.

And getting over the tantrum is a Good Thing, according to research by Dr Becca R. Levy of Yale University and colleagues, published in 2002. They studied attitudes to aging in 660 adults in Ohio age 50–90 over 22 years.  Those who developed positive attitudes about getting older lived more than seven years longer than those who had negative attitudes. And these were not just extra years but healthier years.

"Self-perceptions of aging had a greater impact on survival," the researchers say, "than did gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness and functional health." In fact, positive attitudes had a greater effect than lowered blood pressure or cholesterol (which increase life span by an estimated four years) or exercise, weight loss, or non-smoking status (which add one to three years).

So let’s just suck it up and stay positive.

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