Five years ago, Roger Ailes tried to predict his own death.
“My doctor told me that I’m old, fat, and ugly, but none of those things is going to kill me immediately,” Ailes told a Vanity Fair reporter when he was 71. “The actuaries say I have six to eight years. The best tables give me 10. Three thousand days, more or less.”
Ailes, the former CEO of Fox News, died Thursday at age 77, just around his lower estimate.
Predicting when people will die — although it may sound morbid or insensitive — is commonplace for insurance companies. But there’s science here, too, and some doctors and startup companies are looking for better ways to know how long someone has to live. Knowing how long you have left can help you make more realistic plans for how you want to die.
Where did Ailes get his estimate?
There’s no way to know what information Ailes was giving to the “actuaries.” Based on his age alone, Ailes would have been predicted to live longer. The Internal Revenue Service calculates life expectancies to determine how much money people must take from their retirement accounts every year. Based on those tables, Ailes had about 16 years left when he talked to the Vanity Fair reporter. The Social Security Administration, which takes sex into account, would have given him about 14 years.
That doesn’t take into account any health conditions that might have lowered the numbers.
Researchers are working on developing better models to predict life expectancy. Harvard professor Dr. Ziad Obermeyer, who is developing formulas to predict when people will die, wrote last year in the New England Journal of Medicine that such algorithms may come into use by 2021. He’s already able to identify groups of cancer patients who are definitely going to die within a certain period of time, and others who likely will survive. Patients with serious illnesses might want to know this information, he told Marketplace, because it will help them plan for the future.
Is it in your DNA?
In 2016 Zymo Research, a California biotech, began offering DNA methylation analysis to biotech and academic researchers to determine the biological age of cells. Here, the idea is that as cells age their pattern of methylation — which spots on the genome have quasi-molecules called methyl groups sitting on them — changes.
This was discovered by UCLA biologist Steve Horvath and is called Horvath’s Clock; the basic idea is that at 353 sites in the human genome, called CpG’s, the presence or absence of methylation changes with age as well as diseases (especially cancer) and stress. Methylation is therefore supposedly a proxy for biological age. Outside experts are skeptical: “I would doubt whether it gives a prediction of life expectancy … that is by itself accurate to any useful extent,” John Greally, a geneticist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine who has studied methylation, told STAT earlier this year.
What about your other DNA?
Telomere length has become one of the trendiest biological crystal balls for life expectancy, but the science of this remains unsettled. Telomeres are highly repetitive DNA sequences on the ends of chromosomes that shorten as we age.
A 2003 study showed that telomere length was related to mortality, while a 2010 review of literature found that the effect of telomere length is inconclusive. But then a 2015 study showed that shorter telomeres were associated with greater likelihood of death in a given time.
The unsettled science hasn’t stopped for-profit companies from jumping into direct-to-consumer telomere testing. A commercial test that measures the average length of telomeres claims to use that to calculate life expectancy. The report tells customers their average telomere length, how that compares to others of their chronological age, and from that calculates their age in “teloyears.”
Preparing for the future
The problem for many Americans may not be that one’s exact date of death is a mystery until it happens. Instead, it’s the discomfort that people have talking about death, which discourages planning. When tragedy strikes and people are unable to make decisions for themselves, family members are often left at a loss for what to do. Some communities are trying to overcome that — in La Crosse, Wisc., 96 percent of residents have a plan on file for how they want to die, known as an “advance directive,” laying out how they want to die. That’s almost three times what the national rate was in 2014, NPR reported.