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COLUMN: Life tables help you dodge death, one day at a time

Friday, March 12, 2010 | 12:58 p.m. CST; updated 1:11 p.m. CST, Friday, March 12, 2010
Every year, statisticians at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculate how long the average American will live as well as his or her likelihood of dying within the next year, based on current age and gender. In general, the older you are now, the longer you will live because you’ve already dodged whatever killed others in your age group.

The government says I will die on Dec. 8, 2059.

It's a Monday.

My expiration date was set by a force far more sinister than death panels or health care rationing. It was set by statistics.

To the number jockeys at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, my fate is sealed.

Each year, they get together and publish life tables, morbid little documents that tell you how long an average American has left to live, based on his or her current age, race and gender. My own tiny part of those tables comes on page 16 of the 132-page document: As a 27-year-old white American male, I've got 49.8 years left.

I turned 27 on March 4. Add 49.8 years (18,177 days) to my age and I'll be 76 for my grim reaping on Dec. 8, the same day of the year that took down John Lennon and Slim Pickens.

Of course, it's not that simple. Death rarely is. As fantastic as it would be to molder among such august company, I've already moved on. With every day that I manage not to die, I climb farther down those life tables. Ten days after my birthday, I'll have already added another day to my life.

If I make it to 28, my personal doomsday will jump 36 days, all the way to Jan. 14, 2060 (the same day as Humphrey Bogart, Lewis Carroll, and Edmond "I named a comet" Halley).

My life expectancy keeps growing thanks to the same statistics that predicted my death in the first place. To understand how, consider a hypothetical 100,000 white American males born on the same day I was. Of those, 2,017 didn't make it to 27. This year, another 122 will fall.

Every three days or so this year, another one of my hypothetical 100,000 peers dies. And every time, the average for the rest of us jumps because we survived whatever killed that unlucky son-of-a-gun.

Consider: If I can be one of the 77 percent of my age group that makes it to 67, odds are I'll collect Social Security all the way to age 82. And if I'm one of the 14.4 percent who makes 90, I'll be rocking and rolling until just before my 94th birthday.

That's the wonderful thing about life tables. They're based on the average lifespan of people still alive at your age, so they always promise that you've got longer to live. In the tables, every day that you dodge death means a little bit extra time in which to enjoy life.

And I can live with that.


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