How long will you live?

Portrait of a romantic senior couple spending time together - copyspace iStock

(MoneyWatch) It can be an eye-opening experience to estimate your life expectancy. Depending on a multitude of factors, you could find that if you retire in your mid-sixties, you could easily be retired for 20 years. It's also entirely possible that you could be retired for 30 years or more.

Knowing how long you might live is an important consideration for your retirement planning, because it could take a boatload of money to be retired for this long. An even more important question: What will you do for all those years?

I've previously written about the average life expectancies determined by the Society of Actuaries (SOA) and how it's a mistake to plan to your average life expectancy, since there's a 50/50 chance you could live beyond that average life expectancy. The SOA sponsors a simple life expectancy calculator that shows not only your life expectancy, but also the odds that you'll live to various ages beyond your life expectancy.

It's enlightening to determine an estimated life expectancy that's customized to your lifestyle and family history. Let's take a look at three handy online calculators that can help you do just that.

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company sponsors a simple online calculator that asks users just 13 questions about their family history and lifestyle. It shows how someone's life expectancy goes up or down according to their answer to each question. I tested it out, and it took me less than 5 minutes to complete. It told me I might expect to live to age 95.

There's another online life expectancy calculator you could use at www.livingto100.com, which is based on Dr. Thomas Perls' book, Living to 100. This calculator asks a number of questions about your lifestyle and family history but also adds in queries about nutrition, sleep habits, exercise habits, and, interestingly, your emotional state. It took me about 10 minutes to complete because I had to look up a few test results for my blood pressure and cholesterol counts. My results? It told me I might live to age 101! Looks like my healthy eating and exercise habits will pay off. I also received an email report that summarized the results and gave me suggestions for improving my life expectancy.

You can find another online life expectancy calculator at www.bluezones.com. It's based on Dan Buettner's book, The Blue Zones. This website also asks questions about your lifestyle, nutrition, exercise habits, and emotional state, but no questions about your family history or your blood pressure or cholesterol counts. It also wants to know your income, a subject not covered by the other two calculators. The results at this site told me that I could expect to live to age 95.6 but that my healthy life expectancy -- years free of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes -- was just 81.6 years. It was sobering to think that I might have an extended period of reduced health for the last phase of my life, and it gave me a different outlook on living to age 101 from the one I got from the Living to 100 website. The BlueZones system also offered suggestions for improving my lifespan and my healthspan.

These differing results demonstrate that life expectancy calculations are just estimates based on a number of assumptions -- they aren't your destiny. There are many factors that can affect your life expectancy, and our scientific understanding of life expectancies is still evolving. No matter how many questions a system asks you, you'll never know for sure know how long you'll live.

Nevertheless, estimating your life expectancy is a good use of your time, since you'll get a better idea of how long you could live and how your lifespan might vary than if you just guessed. And if you adopt the suggestions for improvement, you have a very good chance of making a positive difference in your life.

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Because you won't ever know how long you'll live, it's a good strategy to develop sources of retirement income that cover your basic living expenses and are paid no matter how long you'll live. This includes Social Security, a pension from work, and an immediate annuity.

The fact that two of the calculators asked questions about your emotional state of being emphasized the importance of positive personal relationships, belonging to a community, your stress and anger levels, and your satisfaction with work, whether paid or unpaid. These issues are just as important as your financial planning, so don't overlook them. Instead, think about how you'll make good use of the time you have left, and focus on your emotional health as much as your physical and financial health.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto contributor simonkr

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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