Can an Online Calculator Predict Your Life Span?

Photo of random runner courtesy of Brighton photographer on Flickr.

I recently came across an article in the New York Times debating whether an online life span calculator developed at the University of California, San Francisco, should be made available to the public.

The calculator, mind you, is meant to “predict older people’s odds of dying in the coming six months, or four years, or nine,” not whether a 20something endurance freak will qualify for Kona in her 90s. The idea is that knowing when an elderly patient is going to die will help guide his/her medical and financial decisions. The Times says that calculator will be available online in the fall.

But is there an online calculator that will determine if I, that 20something endurance freak, will make it to my goal age of 100? (Screw goal weight, I want to cross finish line of some crazyass event when I’m 100 then drop dead.)

I Googled “life span calculator” and found a website called Livingto100.com,”where I clicked on a button that said, “Take the Calculator” (weird word choice) quickly filled out several pages of questions related to stress (yes), smoking habits (none), drinking habits (almost none), exercise (a ton), health history (Do you know your HDL and LDL?) and family history (diabetes and cancer). The calculator presumably crunched my information in some sort of highly advanced algorithm, returning a very pleasing result: I will live to 97.

So a random online tool approves of my lifestyle. Fabulous. But how reliable, exactly, is a calculator on a website that looks like it was designed by a second grader? The “about the calculator” section states that the calculator’s creator, Dr. Thomas Perls, MD, MPH “is the founder and director of the New England Centenarian Study, the largest study of centenarians and their families in the world.” That’s it. I needed more trustworthiness than a statement that the founder of the website probably helps Smuckers find centenarians to wish Happy Birthday to on TV.

So I Googled “life span predictor” and found a mortality calculator designed by a professor of Statistics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. After filling out a few questions about family background, driving, smoking, sexual and exercise habits, it told me I’d live to 93.88. Not bad, however it also said the median lifetime is 96.22. Last time I checked (just now), the World Bank pegged the average life expectancy in the US at 78.7.

The interesting thing about the second calculator is it analyzed my results. If I eliminated stress from my life, it said I’d add 0.18 years (just over 2 months) to my expected life. Now, at least, I won’t be stressed about being stressed. It also said that being a “conditioned exerciser” and “consuming 5 classes of food everyday” maximized my life expectancy.

So what’s all this mean? Three things: 1. I just wasted half an hour looking for a sign that I’m destined to fulfill my goal of living to 100. 2. There is no such thing as a reliable life-predicting calculator for people in their 20s. 3. Even a statistics nerd at UPenn believes good training and nutrition will maximize life expectancy. And, I would add, the enjoyment of each and every one of those years.

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