Thursday, March 22, 2012

Interview: - "Living to 100 is Tougher Than Expected"

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Recently we have received many requests and questions from reporters regarding our new published study on old-age mortality.

In order to save time for everyone, here are our suggested answers to some frequently asked questions. You are most welcome to use this interview for your own stories and publications, while citing this source.

Question 1:
Why did you decide to do this study?
Why did you suspect that previous models of longevity were inaccurate and what questions were you hoping to answer?

It all started as a routine work on validation of previous studies, with more reliable data and methods.
No discoveries were expected, just more accurate estimates for human death rates at old age.
Before our study, we believed in late-life mortality deceleration, mortality levelling-off and mortality plateaus.
Moreover, we promoted these ideas at our scientific website, and this particular webpage is still here:

Question 2:
Can you briefly explain how you did the study?

We took data from the Social Security Administration on all documented deaths in United States after 1980s, for people born so long ago that nobody in these birth cohorts is still alive.
Then, using method of extinct generations, we constructed cohort life tables and calculated age-specific death rates.
Finally we looked on how these death rates were changing with age.

Question 3:
What about your results is new that we didn't know before?

It was completely new to us and to the entire research community that death rates after age 80 continue to grow according the Gompertz law (doubling every 8 years of age), instead of expected old-age mortality deceleration, mortality levelling-off and mortality plateaus

Question 4:
Were any of the results surprising to you?

Yes, we were very much surprised, and for this reason we delayed our scientific publication for almost 7 years, trying to find mistakes and flaws in our approach.

Question 5:
Were there any "aha" moments in the creation or outcomes of the study?

Yes, when we took data for death rates at younger ages at 30-60 years and extrapolated them to age 100 using the Gompertz law (straight line for the dependence of the logarithm of death rate as a function of age), we got exactly the same numbers, that we have measured empirically. It is really amazing that such a simple exponential function describes human aging and mortality from age 30 to almost 106 years of age! The causes of death at age 30 and 100 are so different. It is puzzling how they "negotiate" each other, so that the total effect of all causes of death follows a simple exponential function?

Question 6:
Why are the findings important?
What are the implications?

Recently the science journalist and writer Jan TenBruggencate answered for us to this question by making the following comment on our new study in his blog:

"The findings have serious impacts. All kinds of calculations are based on the assumption of how many elderly will be alive, and how fast they’re dying: retirement planning, annuities, insurance policies, Social Security payments, care home cost projections, an entire range of health care numbers, and lots more."

We believe that this comment is a compelling answer to your question.

Also after our new NAAJ publication we were invited to present and discuss our findings at the Advisory Board Meeting of a financial organization (BroadRiver Asset Management) located in the New York Empire State Building. We travelled there from Chicago, and after our presentation we got the following feedback from one of the Advisory Board members, Dr. Anne Zissu, Chair, Department of Business NYC College of Technology, CUNY:

"The new research by Leonid A. Gavrilov and Natalia S. Gavrilova, that focuses on mortality of Americans who are 90 years of age and older and its results will alter our financial approach to this valuation [of mortality/longevity risk]. Demographers and financiers need to work on this issue together, and their models must adapt to each others.

Leonid A. Gavrilov and Natalia S. Gavrilova’s research, and particularly this new study, is a great contribution to our society and an essential tool for financiers trying to develop models that focus on transforming seniors’ illiquid assets into liquid assets towards the use of financing their remaining years’ expenses."

Dr. Anne Zissu kindly allowed us to cite publicly her opinion on our work. Contact information for Dr. Anne Zissu is available upon the request.

Also after our new publication we were invited by the Chicago Actuarial Association (CAA) to present and discuss our new research findings at their annual meeting in Chicago on March 13 this year. Being invited speakers at such an event with about a hundred participating experts is a form of recognition for the significance of our new study.

Question 7:
Does this mean that we should all expect to live shorter lives than we may have been hoping for?

This may be partially true for people in their 80s.
But even for them there is some hope that they may benefit from new developments in science and medicine.

For younger people the prospects are much brighter, if they contribute their time and knowledge to the scientific project of delaying aging.
In this case their future may look like this:

Question 8:
Anything else you want to add - main points I should make sure to put in the story?

Our new article is just the tip of the iceberg. Here is the whole story behind it:

We became interested in studies on aging, longevity and extension of healthy lifespan from the very start of our scientific career, and our first scientific articles on these topics were published in 1978. ( please see and )

When we wrote our book "The Biology of Life Span" in 1991, we emphasized the importance of longevity data analysis for testing competing theories of aging, and resolving the question about biological limits to human longevity.

In 1997 we moved to the United States from Russia (getting the Green Card by US lottery), and started to look for available data resources in USA.

Here we learned about the existence of Social Security Administration Death Master File, which contains personal longevity information about almost everyone who died in USA after 1980s.

In 2005 we started to analyze this data set and presented our preliminary findings at several meetings of the Population Association of America, Gerontological Society of America and several international symposia "Living to 100" organized by the Society of Actuaries.

Our presentations were very well received by experts at these meeting, who encouraged us to continue these studies, provided very valuable advice, and then strongly recommended to publish our findings in professional peer-reviewed journal.

We just followed these recommendations from the scientific and actuarial communities.

Our new published study has passed the scrutiny of independent evaluation by three anonymous experts-reviewers, before our manuscript was accepted for publication. The whole process took two years, and the final article addressed all suggestions made by the reviewers So, there are good reasons to be confident in these new peer-reviewed findings.


Question 9:
Can you recommend someone for me to talk to for perspective on the research who was not involved with your work?

Our research was done by the two of us, therefore anybody else who wishes to talk about perspective on our research was not involved with our work.

When we answered your question # 6, we cited an opinion of Dr. Anne Zissu, Chair, Department of Business NYC College of Technology, CUNY, who kindly allowed us to cite publicly her opinion.

Also Tom Edwalds, Assistant Vice President Mortality Research, for the Munich American Reassurance Company made the following public comment on our study:

"It amazes me that the Gompertz model fits so well nearly 200 years after he proposed it. I like the approach of using extinct cohorts methods on SSA DMF [Social Security Administration Death Master File] data by month and the use of male-female ratios to test the quality of the data at advanced ages,"

He kindly allowed to cite publicly his opinion too.

These two are the experts in our research area. If you are interested in public opinions, then you may wish to talk to the authors of these two blog posts:


Saturday, March 03, 2012

'Longevity' Meeting in Chicago, March 13


I am pleased to inform you about upcoming 'human longevity' meeting in Chicago:

What: Lecture and Discussion "Mortality at Advanced Ages" (session A4)
When: Tuesday, March 13, 2012, 1:45 p.m. - 3:00 p.m.
Where: Chicago, Illinois (Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, 300 East Randolph Street), Training Room 3

Logistic details:

For those who are interested, the meeting will be followed by informal discussion, which will become increasingly informal by 5:15 p.m. (cocktail reception) and even more so later by 5:45 p.m. (dinner).

Suggested topics for informal discussions after the lecture: two new related publications of the Wall Street Journal about human longevity:

"Death Gets in the Way of Old-Age Gains"

"An Age-Old Debate"

Hope to see you in Chicago!

If you can not come to Chicago at this time, and would like to have a similar event at your organization, feel free to contact us.

Kind regards,

-- Leonid

-- Leonid Gavrilov, Ph.D.,
Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America
Center on Aging, NORC at the University of Chicago

Longevity Science Blog
'Longevity' Meeting in Chicago, March 13
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