How to Live Longer (Ep. 109)

(Photo: Ethan Prater)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “How to Live Longer.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript here.)

It looks into why Hall of Fame inductees, Oscar winners, and Nobel laureates seem to outlive their peers. The deeper question in the podcast concerns the relationship between status (not income!) and longevity — a fascinating, complex, and controversial topic (here’s a good place to start reading) about which I believe we’ll hear a great deal in years to come. It will be valuable to know what kind of “status boosts” confer health advantages and, conversely, how disappointment and the like can chip away at us.

This podcast was timed to coincide with two events this week: the annual Baseball Hall of Fame election, in which no players were selected this year for the first time since 1996 (here’s ESPN’s take and here’s a useful statistical snapshot); and the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominees.

Accordingly, here’s some of the research you’ll hear about in the podcast:

I am curious to hear from readers on this topic: whether from an empirical or anecdotal perspective, what are some ideas that you personally embrace in the hopes (if you have such hopes!) of living a very long life?

Also, FWIW: next week’s podcast is called “Who Owns the Words That Come Out of Your Mouth?” It’s about Winston Churchill, British vs. American copyright law, and a few other exciting things.


I have to wonder about the direction of causality in all this: whether it's status causing longer life, or a generalized physical superiority causing both enhanced status and long life.

As for the annuities, that would seem to be simple economics. If you are in general good health and expect a long life, an annuity would seem like a good investment. If you're not, and so expecting to depart this vale of tears in the near future, you're better off spending it all before you go.



Pat McClellan

You made the suggestion that investing in an annuity gives people something to live for, and that the data shows they live longer because of it. I would suggest the opposite causal relationship. I come from a family with longevity -- 3 of my grandparents lived beyond age 94, and my great grandparents lived quite long as well. Based on an actuarial survey, my lifespan is estimated in excess of 106 years!
Recently, a former employer offered a buyout on pensions, and while a quick cash influx of $28k is enticing, it was an easy decision for me to retain the annuity option -- which will likely pay me in excess of $5k/year for over 30 years and maybe more. So, my expectation of living long is driving my choice of an annuity.


I had the same choice recently, but figured that rolling over the buyout amount into my IRA would eventually net me more than the pension amount.

Joel Lagan

As a longtime listener of Freakonomics, I was thrilled to hear my firm's area of expertise mentioned (albeit not directly).

Ruark Consulting performs policyholder behavior studies optional behaviors (like withdrawals) and non-optional behaviors (like death). In our recently updated mortality study, our findings in some ways confirmed what was surmised by Mullin and Philipson in 1997. That is that purchasers of the guaranteed living benefits (on variable annuities) have exhibited lower mortality than non-buyers, which perhaps is an indication of product selection decisions made by these purchasers.

However, it should be pointed out that annuities with living benefit guarantees don't cause policyholders to live longer; no more than housefires cause firefighters.

Eric M. Jones

So let's imagine that some strange ergot derivative used for treating some tragic neurotrophic disease has a curious side effect: The researchers note that, although it doesn't cure patients at all, they began to look much younger and much healthier.... So the researcher privately experiments with low titrations and finds (BEHOLD!) the Fountain of Youth.

You have to wonder what would or should become of this information. If you peruse the life-extension websites, you might come to believe this is a strong possibility. The old medical researchers who study this subject are driven with a passion that mere cancer researchers could never muster.


I would love to see similar research on the longevity and health of those who have lost US Presidential elections after being nominated by a major party. More broadly, it would also be interesting to see health outcomes for those who have come close to winning an election for head of state/government for any country. Finally, I wonder if these health outcomes differ from those who win election to one term, but then subsequently lose a reelection bid, like Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush.

Justin Yarmark

Political life in general - this now zero-sum game must be harmful for your health.


I'm surprised the authors forgot that Nobel winners have to still be living to get the award.
So many older nominees wind up dying before the selection is made

Justin Yarmark

My takeaway is that the nature of status competition in our society can drive us to pursue activities that decrease our longevity. In a world where only winners derive the health benefits seems to take us backward not forward.


It's an agreed-upon fact that more active people live longer. And it's an observable fact that Nobel Prize-winners, Hall-of-Famers, and Oscar winners continue to remain in higher demand for lectures, public appearances, and work in their field. So isn't it logical that losing doesn't shorten life so much as winning extends career longevity, keeping aging winners more active, leading to longer lives?


Being someone who used to sleep 8-9 hours a day, I realized that by cutting down my sleep to 6-7 hours a day, I can have an extra 5 years at the end of 30 years. I feel those added hours is the extra years you live, though they don't add to your age count.

Sergio Ruiz

I believe that living longer is just a matter of time:
1) Longevity Escape velocity
2) Because of the innovative methods of the Methuselah Foundation


very nice and great sound