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Why being able to predict the length of your life matters
A new study on life expectancy found that nearly half of older Americans miscalculate how long they have left to live. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Older Americans aren't very good at assessing how long they should expect to live, which complicates their end-of-life care decisions, according to medical researchers.

"Patients want to know (their) prognosis to prepare logistically and financially, to prepare psychologically or spiritually, to prepare friends and family, to make the most of the time they have left, and to make health-related decisions," said Dr. Elizabeth Eckstrom, a geriatrics researcher at Oregon Health and Sciences University, to Reuters.

A new study, released this week by the journal JAMA Internal Medicine (paywall), found that 45 percent of Americans age 64 and older miscalculated their life expectancy. Researchers compared people's guesses to the objective calculations doctors can make with data, arguing that when patients have an imperfect idea of how long they'll live, they miss out on the opportunity to make health care decisions on their own terms.

"Doctors and patients often consider life expectancy when deciding which preventive measures or treatments will do the most good. This projection might, for example, lead a cancer patient to skip toxic chemotherapy if they're not likely to live long enough to benefit from it, or it might encourage someone with diabetes to make lifestyle changes that might improve the last few decades of life," Reuters reported.

Having clearer conversations about life expectancy would allow patients to make the best end-of-life care plan for them, researchers argued. However, earlier surveys have suggested that many people avoid considering their death altogether.

One in four Americans age 75 and older have given "not very much thought" or "no thought" to their end-of-life wishes for medical treatment, according to a 2013 study from Pew Research Center. That figure rises to 27 percent among all U.S. adults aged 18 and older, Pew noted.

"There has been only modest change over time in the level of public attention to, and preparation for, end-of-life medical decisions," Pew reported.

Medicare hopes to jumpstart conversations about life expectancy and death with a new initiative, which would pay doctors for holding conversations about these issues with their patients, as Deseret News National reported in August.

The "proposed plan would reimburse medical professionals for appointments dedicated to end-of-life-care planning, allowing doctors to take the lead in starting conversations with patients and creating a healthier nationwide dialogue about death," the article noted.