Life expectancy and the bonus years

Child in full tantrum

By all means have a tantrum when you discover how long you are going to live

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(First published in 2015 in another blog, Boot Camp FOR The Bonus Years.) In which the bonus years are defined, rejected, resented, and grudgingly accepted.

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 necessarily. 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 98 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 data.

All my grandparents died in their mid-eighties, and deep inside I supposed I would do the same. Then I realised that my instinctive life expectancy of 84 was seriously inaccurate. (Yes yes, obviously I could become fatally ill or disabled tomorrow, but we’re looking at the odds.)

Arithmetic is not my strong suit, but I can calculate the difference between 84 and 98. Out of the blue I have been granted 14 bonus years.

Grown-ups may throw tantrums when granted bonus years

Discovering that I was likely to live long past my imaginary due-date was like a smack in the face. I launched into the longest loudest tantrum in the southern hemisphere.

My hissy fit lasted 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.

I noticed 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 decided to undertake a personal boot camp.

Feel the fury and let it go

I suspect this rage-against-the-bonus-years is not uncommon.  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 ageing 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).

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

11 thoughts on “Life expectancy and the bonus years

  1. lifecameos says:

    Very interesting ! I have so far averaged my possible lifespan out between my father’s age at death – 91 – and my mother from a family with very poor health / medical history, still lasting to 81. As I had three redundancies which greatly reduced my chances at saving a reserve fund, I also decided to allow for the possibility of living to 91. I am accordingly very cautious about how I spend any of that “smaller” reserve fund. So far I have managed, having no vast disasters, and my health issues managed by the GP. However a few friends and family members have experienced genetic time bombs even when living as recommended by experts – good diet, plenty of exercise, mental stimulation, good stress management. etc. It seems to me all we can do is our best, and expect the unexpected.

    1. This is very sensible, as well as practical — indeed, we have no idea what our real lifespan will be. But I’m glad I’ve got a more realistic idea than I used to have.

      1. lifecameos says:

        Oh yes. I am sure it helps us a lot in these days when we are living so much longer.

  2. cedar51 says:

    I’m not sure I really want to know…

    But society in NZ is changing – when I was looking to move, I heard that it was possible to get rentals in some retirement villages, but on inquiry found “no way, you’ve too young…” I was 66, apparently they were taking no one under 70!

    I don’t know if the situation outside Auckland is different, but in every suburb there’s a big number of units/apts for retirees…it’s big business as far as I can tell.

    I don’t actually have a home of my own, now…a marriage split up put paid to that & then a bad investment…(long story about the financial side…)

    I live within my means which as well as NZsuper have top-ups for various reasons. I don’t run a car, and I’m not expensive bimbo either but I seem to manage to eat reasonably well, and get away for a short trips/retreat…I’ve got a fee-free scholarship for my current art study…

    I’ve got health and disability issues – which mostly I just self-manage although the GP provides other medicines for certain things. Sometimes I feel like that one of the issues will get me…but so far, managed in the main to stay on top of things…

    My parents were old when I was born, apparently one of those “special babies” and hence they were gone before I was 25. My siblings much older as well, but now only me and the eldest still alive, She is 91!

  3. 91, huh? Well, I don’t know how long I am going to live, obviously, but I thrive on facts that I can interpret positively. Sounds as if you’ve got it sussed!

    1. cedar51 says:

      Big sis, didn’t expect to live past year 2000 but she an hubby did. Hubby has now gone…and each year Big Sis’s daughter thinks she will be gone soon. I have no idea how she has survived, but each trip to hospital is always an emergency – she may spend weeks there – but somehow arrives back home – a little less well, but okay to live at home, with help.

      Big Sis was one of the last and the oldest person, at that time, to succumb to polio when it was rife in NZ. Her disabilities were basically minimal but there has been problems…

      1. It’s never simple.

  4. I think the attitude of those intrepid Aussie & Kiwi caravanners helps too. “Come on Mabel, just one more Big Lap of Oz.”

    1. Absolutely!

  5. jameswharris says:

    That would scare the crap out of me to think I’d live that long. My mother would say every Christmas that she didn’t think she’d live another year. She said that for over thirty years. I’m not anxious to die, but neither am I anxious to live into my nineties. I’d have to lose weight and get awful fit to think that’s possible.

  6. It was a heck of a shock. And yet, I got used to it. And so would you, to be realistic! More time for reading, thinking, and other mind adventures…

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