“I am sorry, but your time has expired. Have a nice day!”
Nope, not a friendly message from a parking meter app. This was from Deathclock.com, a site that purports to tell folks their predicted date of death based primarily on their date of birth. Mine was May 3, 2020 according to “the clock”.
Uh, I don’t think so… Clearly—and fortunately for me as I write this blog—the date was more than a little off.
Frankly, predicting a date of death is not something to laugh about. Too many folks facing serious illnesses deal with the burden of their mortality every day, and too many have lost their lives prematurely. Yet for many, their personal longevity remains more than a source of passing interest.
My encounter with the Deathclock came about as I read a book by Steven Petrow: “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old.” Mr. Petrow is a well-known and well-regarded digital journalist who has interviewed me in the past. His book is a quick and engaging read and offers humorous and intense insights into the thinking of what we say we won’t do when we get old. As he points out inevitably many of us sink into the same traps as our parents even those we promise to ourselves that we won’t get caught in as we age.
As he began his chapter “I Won’t Postpone for Tomorrow What Matters to Me Today”—which is good advice for folks at any age—he discussed the Deathclock, what it told him, and the responses he got from his oncologist among others (he is a testicular cancer survivor).
Having read the book, I thought I would look up my own date with mortality on the Deathclock and the results are noted above. I am not certain where they got their prediction, and would note that the website doesn’t ask a lot of probing questions. My hunch is they use long-established mortality tables for birth cohorts born in 1946 or whatever year is relevant for you and basically paste that information into their “clock.”
Fundamentally, this is a fatalistic “big population” number, without much attention to the nuances that make a difference, such as your diet, cholesterol, exercise, stress level, etc. In other words, they give you a date painted with a very broad brush, which means a lot of people will unfortunately live shorter lives, and a similar number will live longer lives.
This isn’t the only such program out there.
Recently, our employer-based health insurance wellness program offered a biologic age assessment. This one was much more detailed and asked a lot of very probing questions which I answered honestly (well, almost honestly!!!).
The good news? I am 10 years younger than I am. Yeah, really!!!! And that came with a lot of stress and life-related sturm and drang—along with hours of exercise, and forever trying to modify my diet and sleep.
Then there was an article a friend sent me from a very recent issue of the MIT Technology Review on the topic of “Aging clocks aim to predict how long you’ll live.”
Turns out aging clocks—a very broad term of art—were the 11th breakthrough cited by readers of the magazine on a poll asking for an annual list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies. So maybe not the top 10, but close enough. (One might ask how #11 made the list of the top 10, however I leave that for another day.)
The article discusses the fascination and science surrounding aging clocks, which in this context were primarily based on blood samples and some fancy genetic footwork to assess the aging of the body and various organs. Lots of clocks, many not particularly good, and even the good ones a bit of a black box.
No matter: probably a bit more accurate and individually relevant than the skull which showed up on my online death clock.
What does all this mean? Hard to say for certain.
Biologic clocks are certainly interesting, more than a parlor game, however only useful if it really impacts the way you think about yourself and your health, gives you a wake-up call, or validates what you have been doing to help yourself age better as a result of controlling your blood pressure and cholesterol, better diet, more exercise, better sleep, less stress among other factors.
It is always important to remember that a lot of these predictive devices are based on large populations. There are a lot of individual variables which are not accounted for in those populations, and over time even the variables change: our ability to prevent and treat some diseases today is far removed—fortunately—from what was available a couple of decades ago. Longer life expectancy is the result.
Sadly, the pandemic has made a substantial dent in our expected longevity here in the United States and elsewhere. There is no getting away from the fact that COVID 19 led to the deaths of close to 1 million folks in this country, almost all of them adults. That number is staggering, and the fact that many of those deaths were NOT in the “old old” category means that many years of productive life were lost. Our mortality statistics have been impacted, and life expectancy in this country has been severely impacted.
The lesson from the “death clock” experience is that you can make a difference in your mortality. Not always, but some of the time. By taking care of yourself and your health you too can beat that awful skull and crossbones and avoid that miserably trite “Have a nice day” message.
It takes a lot of effort however I assure you it can be done. Not without effort and sacrifice, but it can be done.