What factors weigh on life expectancy?

Services and calculators offer to help users make better predictions of how long they’ll live

What factors weigh on life expectancy?

In survey after survey, Canadian adults of all ages and genders have expressed the same fear: “Will I outlive my savings in retirement?” The answer depends, in part, on how long one particular person will live — and an increasing number of start-ups are offering tools and resources aim to answer that question.

Adding to the abundance of financial calculators that people can use online are age calculators, which ask about factors associated with life expectancies, such as income or wealth. While these aren’t meant to provide exact predictions, they can give people a much-needed ballpark estimate.

“[W]e can say, ‘For someone your age and gender, with your level of income and education, your body-mass index and sleep and exercise patterns, this is what science tells us you are likely to experience,’” S. Jay Olshansky, a professor at the University of Illinois with connections to two tech individualized age-projection business start-ups, told the Wall Street Journal.

According to Olshansky, results from calculators tend to be “exaggerated” because they consider individual factors that positively correlate with some’s expected lifespan, assign “longevity credits” to each, and simply add them up. “In the real world, these variables are not additive,” he said.

One start-up that tapped Olshansky as a consultant is Wealthspan Advisors, which is planning to offer a free longevity calculation tool to advisors that partner with it. The tool was developed with input from Olshansky, who used a methodology with results weighted according to how strongly they correlate with longevity.

Among the pieces of information that the calculator reportedly requires from users are a person’s height, weight, marital status, and the number of hours they spend sleeping or exercising per day. Their number of years of education, whether or not they smoke, and whether they’re unable to perform “activities of daily living” are also factored in.

Aside from the calculator, WealthSpan CEO Kirk Ashburn said the firm wants to sell life insurance and annuities, as well as offer an analysis service that looks at results from 23andMe to find genes associated with longevity and Alzheimer’s. Having the FOX03 gene, for example, would make someone more likely to live longer.

Another genetic factor gaining attention is the length of a person’s telomeres, which are segments of DNA that insulate chromosomes from damage. Some companies offer so-called “telomere kits”: a user submits a biological sample, typically blood or saliva, which is then tested to determine their biological age based on how long their telomeres are. However, some experts question the predictive power of telomere length: it varies widely between individuals, and companies apply different testing methods.

Financial planners working on long-term plans of at least 10 years can turn to financial projection guidelines from professional standards-setting bodies. Such guidelines can include tables of life expectancy assumptions, as well as inflation rates, nominal returns of investments, and borrowing rates.


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