How long will I live? About forecasters

23 Mar

Joan MV Pons

The robustness and solidity of a science (which is why informally we sometimes talk about “hard sciences” and “soft sciences”) depends on its capacity to predict.

A science does not only need to explain what is happening in a very plausible way but also needs to be able to predict what will happen, with as great precision as possible.

In the same way that econometric models (mathematical, full of formulae and equations) want to demonstrate, in numbers, how closely they approximate to reality and therefore how by modifying initial parameters a calculation will produce a result that we would expect, so-called “life expectancy calculators” or “death clocks” also abound these days. You can find quite a few on the internet, some more serious while others more entertaining.

Asking oneself how much longer we have to live is in any case a good question.

We know a lot about the factors that have an influence on disease and which bring death closer to us and we also know how progress (it is not clear in what, as it is not exclusively medical) has increased our life expectancy (which should not be confused with longevity even though this is often the case), at least in developed countries.

We also know that health professionals despite their experience, are not as accurate in predicting as are the predictive statistical models that can include a multiplicity of variables. A comment in the BMJ recently spoke about these prognostic factors and life expectancy calculators. I have included several, of the more serious ones, in the bibliography.

Forgive me for taking the liberty for doing so, but today I will share with you, with irony, a cruise I took on the internet while searching for some of these prognostic tools that want to predict how long we have left to live in this world.

Abaris is one of these mathematical prognostic tools, developed by “professors” at the University of Pennsylvania with the support of The Times and The Wall Street Journal and which seems to be one of the most accurate. It factors in sex (it might be more accurate to refer to “gender” but “sex” is the nomenclature used in the application), weight and height (beware! You need to choose the metric system because if not the information given is in pounds and inches), to get to the body mass index, a well-known prognostic factor with a U-shaped curve in relation to the probability of dying, level of education, marital status (married, widow or widower, divorced, never married, separated – I am unaware of the difference between the third and last), if you are already retired, level of income (in dollars), the amount of exercise you do, what your general health is like, whether you have diabetes and what vices you have in general (alcohol, tobacco).

You choose from all this presented with colourful computer graphics and then, if you press the button, it performs all the calculations for you but if you want the results you have to give them your email address where they will send them. Someone might be inclined to do this but at this stage, I’m not giving anything away (and less on the network; they already take without asking).

Let’s move on to another forecaster sponsored by an insurance company (what more could you ask for?). The nice thing about Lifespan calculator is that as you answer questions it starts showing you your life expectancy and so you can see how it increases or decreases depending on what you answer. However, it does not ask you about your marital status or your level of income or studies but it does ask you about your family history, blood pressure, level of stress, the exercise you do, diet, whether you use a seat belt or not while in the car and toxic habits, among other details. On this one you also have to convert height into feet and inches.

The social security in the United States also offers a calculator but it is a lot more impersonal and does not take risk factors or protective factors into consideration. It only asks you for your sex and date of birth and provides you with your life expectancy according to your current age and your birth cohort. So, as I am 58 and 8 months, I can expect to live 24.4 years longer until I reach 83.1 as estimated for my cohort. It must be said that this calculator also estimates your age of retirement.

Another forecaster, a little less sophisticated created by a physician on his own initiative, Living to 100, includes a lot more elements than the others: nutrition, social relationships, level of anxiety, sleep and common habits but also includes the intake of coffee and tea, air pollution, exercise and family history. Unfortunately, it also sends you the results via email.

There is yet another way of looking for forecasters of this type: typing in ”death clock”, never better said.

There are some very entertaining ones with their humoristic screens (death and its scythe waiting for you at the tomb which is already prepared). The The Death Clock asks you for your date of birth, sex, height and weight (in centimetres and kilos in this case), your country of residence, whether you smoke, how you see yourself (pessimist, optimist, neutral, suicidal) and how much alcohol you drink. This “clock” calculates quickly and accurately and it even goes so far as to tell you the day on which you will die (comically foreseen derived from the fact that the date is engraved on the tombstone). However, it seems too simple.

Finally, whilst I am certain that more can be found, I have found another. This other, called The Death Clock, is very similar to the one before and also contains gloomy images to make it clear that we are entering very dark terrain. This forecaster also asks you for your sex and date of birth and like the others it asks you to work out your body mass index. Instead of alcohol, it asks you about tobacco (smoker or not, outright, no subtleties) and in terms of your state of mind it considers being normal, pessimistic and optimistic (like in the previous one), but it adds sadistic which is very surprising. It also asks you for your weight and height to calculate your body mass index. If all turns out well, it also tells you the day, month and year in which you will die and within seconds shows you the countdown.

It is precisely this calculator which, very elegantly, I having put pessimist (by nature) said: I’m sorry but your time has expired. Have a nice day.

Post written by Joan MV Pons.