Better Ways To Estimate How Long Retirement Will Last

The key question you must answer before claiming Social Security benefits or developing a retirement plan is: How long will retirement last? Another way to phrase the question is: What is my life expectancy?

You can start to answer this question by using the average life expectancy for your age group. You also can use that only as a starting point. There are ways to arrive at a better estimate of life expectancy.

The Society of Actuaries and the American Academy of Actuaries jointly developed a free online tool, the Actuaries Longevity Illustrator (ALI).

The actuaries sorted through the data and concluded that a reasonable estimate of an individual’s life expectancy can be determined from four factors: age, gender, smoking habits and whether current health is poor, average or excellent. You enter these factors in the ALI, and it gives you an answer.

But it gives you more than a simple estimate of life expectancy. The ALI results show you the probability of living to different ages. In addition, a couple can enter the data for each individual. The ALI will present the probability of life expectancies for each spouse. It will answer the questions “How long can we expect to live as a couple?” and “By how many years might one spouse outlive the other?”

The ALI is one way to obtain a personalized estimate of life expectancy. Another type of tool to consider that purports to estimate individual life expectancy is one of the online calculators that are based on questionnaires.

These calculators generally are free and available on the Internet. They usually ask a series of questions about your health and lifestyle. Some ask only a few basic questions while others ask a greater number of questions about lifestyle and recent medical tests.

The most popular of these calculators seems to be Living to 100. Social Security has a life expectancy calculator on its website, and many life insurance companies also do. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania has a calculator that received good reviews. You can access several of the well-regarded calculators in one place at You also can search for “life expectancy calculators” or something similar on your favorite web search engine.

While better than life expectancy tables and averages, the calculators also have many shortcomings.

Some of the calculators aren’t updated to reflect the latest research and findings often enough. Many, in a quest to be user-friendly, limit the questions they ask, leaving out issues that others consider important. Most, for example, don’t ask if a person ever had cancer.

Some of the calculators make arbitrary decisions. For example, research shows that calcium-rich diets improve bone density and reduce hip fractures late in life. But the research doesn’t show how much a calcium-rich diet and avoiding hip fractures increase life expectancy. Yet, at least one calculator asks about calcium in the diet and arbitrarily adjusts life expectancy based on the answer. The calculators also rely on self-reported information from the users, which can be incomplete or inaccurate.

Perhaps most important, the online calculators generally treat each factor in isolation and adjust life expectancy higher or lower based on each answer. In the real world, factors often interact. Two or more factors together can increase or decrease life expectancy more than each factor alone.

Online calculators are valuable tools, and are better ways to estimate life expectancy than the methods most people use. But I recommend that if you go this route you use more than one calculator. You’ll see different results, sometimes differences of a decade or more. Then, you decide how to use the different results.

You also can consider one of the scientific services. These services involve your submitting some genetic material, usually either saliva or blood. You might need to go to a medical lab or similar facility to have the blood sample taken. The service will examine your DNA or various blood panels and compare the results to those in its database.

These services purport to offer a more scientific and personalized estimate of longevity. Some also say they can point to health or medical issues. Your life expectancy might be extended by having these issues addressed now instead of later when other symptoms arise.

These are new services, so they are a long way from having a record of accurately estimating the longevity of people who are likely to live another couple of decades or more.