I don’t quite know why, but suddenly, I’ve become obsessed with the issue of Life Expectancy. Every day, I watch or read a news report about someone younger than me (I’m seventy-four) dying of what seems to be natural causes. They appeared healthy a second ago, and now they’re gone. Or they’re a little older than me, and now they’re gone, and I’m thinking, is that the age I will zero out on? I’m moderately healthy except for obesity, high blood pressure, prostate issues, and inability to sleep six hours (forget about eight). Of course, there’s the subject of a lifetime burden of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll I’m convinced is still in my physical system (Do I get extra points because I quit nearly twelve years ago?). Aside from all those worries, I’m sure I’ll be fine. That’s because I’ve been consulting life expectancy calculators lately.
In a recent post, I quoted the Social Security Administration’s calculator when I claimed that I have an additional “12.5 years in life expectancy subject to a “wide number of factors such as current health, lifestyle, and family history that could increase or decrease life expectancy.” That means, at eighty-six-point-six months, I will be sucked into the black hole. Wait, I forgot the second part about “current health, lifestyle” qualifier. Damn, I’m doomed.
Maybe not. As part of an assignment for my Gerontology class, I need to write a research paper about life expectancy. I took the test yesterday, and wow, I’m going to live to be ninety-nine years old and have an opportunity to add another one-point-six years onto that prediction. It was a little confusing, however. I could swear it also told me I would die at seventy-five, which is coming this December 8. Okay, that’s kind of not cool. I’m unsure what that all means, but that didn’t help build my confidence about living to a ripe old age. I have plans, and this interferes with them. Hell, I’m supposed to graduate next Spring. I can’t die before then.
Not satisfied with those calculators, I decided to check with another one and then average all three. So I checked with the life expectancy calculator sponsored by The U.S. Small-Area Life Expectancy Estimates Project (USALEEP). According to their website, “USALEEP is a partnership of the National Center for Health Statistics, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), and the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS).” Their life expectancy estimates are calculated based on where a person lives. Zip Code, to be exact.
I punched in my address and zip code and got a message that I don’t live in a census tract they track (too suburban, I guess). The Life Expectancy Project quotes the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “life expectancy at birth in the United States is 76.4 years—73.5 years for men (a decrease of 0.7 years from 74.2 in 2020 (Well, at least I beat that.) and 79.3 years for women (a decrease of 0.6 years from 79.9 in 2020).” What are the leading causes of death? Heart disease followed by cancer and COVID-19.
The calculator coughed out 80.80 years for all of California (I can live with that). Los Angeles County, where I live, is a whopping 82.29 years (Now we’re talking, but it’s still a little limiting for the long-term goals on my bucket list. All these numbers are colored by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic (You do remember the recent rampage by Death?). If you read the qualifiers on the website, you’ll find the reality check about where we are as a nation.
For the first time in our history, the United States is raising a generation of children who may live sicker and shorter lives than their parents. In 2020 and again in 2021, we witnessed the steepest plunge in life expectancy since World War II, primarily fueled by the coronavirus pandemic.Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Knock on wood, but I’ve been able to avoid the plague so far. But, the small print speaks about reversing the trend will, as they say, “…depend on healthy choices by each of us. But not everyone in America has the same opportunities to be healthy.” But how much of those healthy choices can we control? According to the project, mitigating factors impact who lives longer and who doesn’t. They write that “…the drivers of inequitable social, economic, built, and physical conditions within and across place and race can dramatically reduce opportunities for better health and well-being.” I guess there’s nothing simple about trying to live longer.
Now, I live in what might be described as a middle to an upper-middle-income neighborhood on the east side of Long Beach. However, I live less than a mile from two freeways that carry thousands of cars every hour spewing their pleasant exhaust fumes all over our beautiful Southern California skies. There are also a couple of power plants nearby, but I have no idea what they’re spewing, so I don’t count them, although I’m sure my lungs do (just saying).
As I write this essay, I realize that none of this matters in my daily life. I could get mugged and killed at any moment, slip and fall on my front steps, get t-boned on the 405 freeway, and get squashed into the concrete divider and be compacted into a small square. Worse (it could get worse?), I could get COVID-19 and get carried into an ICU and, with my health issues, never make it out alive. It could happen.
By the way, if my math is correct, when I average out all the predictions, I will live until the nice ripe age of 83.28 (Something not to aspire to). The reality is, and I know it is, that how long you live depends on many factors; some you can control, and others you can’t. So instead of obsessing about an arbitrary number, I should focus on factors I can influence, like diet, exercise, mental health, and the one aspect that has influenced so much of my life: determination. The determination to outrun death and its manifestations of sickness and incapacitation. So far, so good.