Calculating your life span


October 03, 2006|By EILEEN AMBROSE

Lately, I've been recommending to friends, co-workers and even strangers that they floss.

It has nothing to do with their smile and everything to do with living longer. As it turns out, daily flossing can add a year to your life. Yes, flossing. Who knew?

This discovery was made while trying various online calculators that predict life expectancy. Getting an idea of how long you're likely to live is critical for retirement planning.

For instance, if you're pretty sure you won't make it past 40, maybe you should splurge on that dream cruise to the Caribbean. But if you're likely to get birthday greetings someday from Willard Scott, stash as much as you can in 401(k)s and IRAs.

Financial planners say people often underestimate how long they will live, increasing the chance of outlasting their money. Planners recommend counting on living to 90 or 95, unless there's a health or family history reason to believe otherwise.

Or, you can try a life expectancy calculator. The types and answers vary. (My life expectancy ranges from 79.3 years up to 102, although most pegged my exit at about 89.)

Some do a quick and dirty prediction based on gender and age. Others ask dozens of questions about health, behavior and family history before spitting out a figure. And they often give advice on how to live longer.

For the most definitive projection, though, check out Based on birth date, gender and country, the calculator pinpoints the time of death to the very second. (In my case, it's Jan. 29, 2038, at 11:31 p.m. and 24 seconds.)

Some of the most useful calculators are those that dig deeper into behavior, such as

"The purpose of the calculator is to give a general idea of personal longevity," and to let people see that there's something they can do about it, says Dr. Thomas Perls, the calculator's developer.

Behavior, he says, accounts for about 70 percent of life expectancy. Genes do the rest - though once someone makes it to 100, genes likely play a bigger role, says Perls, an associate professor at Boston University School of Medicine.

Perls' life expectancy is 96. He says it wasn't that high until he lost weight and changed his diet.

One discovery when using the calculator is that marriage is a better deal for men than women.

"Men, they've got to get married. They need women around to improve their life expectancy," Perls says. Women don't gain more years by marriage.

Daily flossing is another life saver. "There are a number of studies showing a good correlation between gum health and heart disease," Perls says.

Florida gerontologist David Demko says he's been working on his "death calculator" since the 1970s. He revises it as medical discoveries are made, such as the impact of secondhand smoke and the benefits of white, not just red, wine. It's available online at

The calculator reveals that volunteering, being religious and having friends of different ages extends life. Pets boost life spans, but it's better to have a dog or cat than a goldfish. And smoking a pack of cigarettes a day cuts off four years.

Running celebrities through his calculator, Demko projected that Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards should have died in 1995. "It could very well be the public Keith Richards may be very different than the private Keith Richards," Demko says. Perhaps the 63-year-old is a closet carrot eater?

On the other hand, lead singer Mick Jagger's family history of longevity could keep him going to 101. Anyone up for Rolling Stones Tour 2044?

Be warned, the calculators can get a bit addictive. You might find yourself plugging in information to find out what happens if you smoked more than three packs of cigarettes and drank five martinis a day. And what if you're 500 pounds heavier and eat only processed meats?

Bottom line, though, is the calculators can be a wake-up call to financially prepare for a life that may be years longer than our parents experienced. "That's why I like children as an investment. If you raise them right and if you do outlive your assets, hopefully they will take care of you," jokes James Angel, associate finance professor at Georgetown University. Angel, who has five children, is expected to live to 86.

Try a calculator and let us know what you think.

To suggest a topic, contact Eileen Ambrose at 410-332-6984 or by e-mail at eileen.ambrose Podcasts featuring Ambrose can be found at

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