People will bet on just about anything and, what’s more, there are people and often bookies prepared to take bets on just about anything. People have bet on how quickly butter will slide down a wall (okay, this was in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest so the people were fictitious), how long it will take an ice cube to melt (we were young and drunk), and which sugar cube a fly will land on (check out the brilliant Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People: The Memoirs of the Greatest Gambler Who Ever Lived. Bookies have accepted wagers on children or grandchildren to win world titles or play for the country; they have invited and accepted bets on Elvis making a comeback and aliens being discovered; you name it, someone somewhere has probably bet on it.
So, in the scheme of things, having a bet on yourself to live to 100 is actually relatively mainstream and, dare we say it, even a little tame. That said, we’ll take tame and mainstream if it scoops us a cool £25k as it did for one bold punter back in 2007! Read on as we explain more about that particular wager and also look at whether such a punt represents good value. If you eat your greens, steer clear of the booze and get plenty of exercise, might a bet on yourself to see 100 be a good way to land a better birthday present on the big day than a mere letter from the Queen?
The Man Who Won £25k by Living to 100
In 1997, Alec Holden, already aged 90 by then, an age that just about everyone would agree qualifies as old, placed a bet that he would live to see 100. Fast forward 10 years and the now centurion (actually centenarian is the correct term) was able to head to William Hill and collect a very cool sum of £25,000!
You know you’re old when your kids are 70 and 60 but Holden’s lucky children were treated to a nice family holiday with the winnings. In the time-honoured fashion, Mr Holden was asked the secret to his longevity and put it down to the fact he did “as little work as possible, get as many holidays as I can and have porridge for breakfast”. He also very helpfully added “And, of course, you need to keep breathing. That’s essential.” To be fair, that is quite funny for an old fella!
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this was that he made the bet at such an advanced age. A baby born today has a relatively slim chance of reaching 100, as we shall explain in more detail later. But this shrewd punter had already put most of the hard yards in by getting to 90. What is an extra 10 years?
Displaying real faith in his own wellbeing, Mr Holden contacted bookies at Christmas 1997, deciding that he felt sprightly. This being the 20th century and him being old school, he wrote to William Hill, saying, “I am 90 and I would very much like to place a bet on myself, that I will still be here on my 100th birthday on April 24 2007.” He asked what proof was required and what odds he would get and was pleased when the bookie offered him odds of 250/1 and a maximum stake, which he accepted, of £100.
Bookies Learn Their Lesson
According to reports at the time, the £25k payout on the punter above was the third similar win in a few years, with other canny oldies landing wins of £12,000 and £8,000. You might have thought that bookies would have got a better grip on such a market, though to be fair we do not know how many bets the oddsmakers win on such wagers.
At the time, a spokesperson from Hill’s, Rupert Adams, said that “Ten years ago, 100 years old seemed like an almost mythical number. But now a large number of people are making it to 100 and it is an easier milestone to hit with various medical improvements”. We think this may be bookie speak for “We got the odds wrong but we don’t really want to admit it”. The chances of someone reaching 100 do not alter radically in just 10 years, certainly not so much as to justify the odds that Adams said they would offer now (“now” being at the time in 2007).
The Hill’s representative added that they would delighted to hand over the cheque but said that “If someone came to us today and was 90 and asked for the same bet we would give them 10/1.” Adams also claimed that to get those same odds of 250/1 they would want a 90 year old to make it to 110, rather than “just” 100 now. As said, this all dates back to 2007 too, so no doubt bookmaker’s would be even more parsimonious with their odds today.
UK Life Expectancy
According to data from The World Bank, UK life expectancy has risen steadily in the UK for much of the last 60 years or so and, as of 2018, stood at 81.3. Clearly, former teacher and carpenter Alec Holden was doing something right to reach 90, let alone 100.
That ranks the UK 20th in terms of European countries, with the microstate of San Marino some way clear at the top. The woeful record of the national football team is clearly of little concern to Sammarinese, whose average life expectancy of 85.42 puts them well ahead of second-placed Switzerland (83.7). There is little between the Swiss and the Cypriots (80.83), the latter ranking 24th in Europe, though many former Soviet states, including the likes of Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan have life expectancies in the low 70s.
That puts those nations around where the UK was back in 1960, when the average life expectancy was 71. That stayed flat until 1964, when Brits could expect another year on this mortal coil. It took another decade for that number to increase to 73, rising steadily to reach 78 by the year 2000. By 2011 it had jumped to 81 but it has flat-lined since and the 2008 global financial crisis (and the austerity measures that followed) plus the events of 2020 and 2021 are unlikely to help it rise further.
As the new data comes in, we may see UK life expectancy drop and if not it will probably be some time before it rises again. But what are the chances of someone in the UK seeing the magical three figures? Well, despite 2020 and all the bad news and grief it brought, in September that year it was reported there had been a significant increase in the number of UK centenarians.
Increase in Life Span
Admittedly, this data relates to 2019, so we will have to wait to see what impact the pandemic had. Even so, according to information from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) there were 13,330 who had received the famous letter from the Queen. That represented an increase of over 5% from 2018, with a marked increase in semi-supercentenarians as well. Of course we know most of you are familiar with that word but for those that aren’t, that is people of 105 and above.
Interestingly, there was a massive 62% rise in the number of 99 year olds alive in 2019. That is set to muddy the waters in terms of 2020’s centenarian stats and was caused by a large spike in births after World War One. This shows just one of the many complexities in assessing life expectancy, with so many variables able to affect the data.
In relation to the story about our £25,000 bet-winner, the BBC published a story, “What are my chances of living to 100?”. In it they explained that “The mathematics of life expectancy calculations undertaken by actuaries are very complex.” Actuaries and other related statistical experts need to accurately predict life expectancy to calculate insurance risk and premiums, pensions and investment strategies and potential medical costs.
Men vs Women
They use far more complex and detailed models than a bookmaker would, although increasingly in an age of big data even bookmakers may have access to some of the same information. According to the BBC feature, your chances of living to 100 are “Pretty grim – just 8% if you are a man currently aged 40; almost 12% if you are a woman the same age”. That was a calculation based on stats as they were in 2007 but relatively little has changed in that time, so we would expect those numbers to broadly stand.
Whilst the Beeb may have used the summary “pretty grim” in regards to one’s chances of making it to 100, 12% for a woman represents around a one in eight chance, with men having about a one in 13 chance. That is based on people being 40 years of age and does not adjust for lifestyle factors. That means that if you are 40, a healthy weight, have reasonable genes (by which we mean no major family history of cancer, heart disease and so on), exercise regularly and eat a healthy, varied diet your actual chances of hitting the triple-figure milestone birthday are far greater. Perhaps not such grim odds after all.
Your Current Age
Your current age has a huge impact on your life expectancy as self-evidently, if you are already 90, you have a higher life expectancy than a newborn (who can expect to live to 81). In addition, you have a far better chance of reaching 100 than someone who is much younger. There are conflicting forces at play though, and an equilibrium where the advances in modern lifestyles and healthcare outweigh the benefits of years lived in terms of your chances of reaching 100. In addition, Danny Dorling, an expert at Sheffield University, explained that the rules alter slightly once someone reaches such advanced years.
Dorling noted that, “By the time you get to 90 you’ve gone past a lot of the things that usually kill you, the bulk of cancers apart from prostate, your heart is fairly sound and so people who die in their 90s tend to die from different things than other people.” Once again, this all highlights what a complex picture it is and so perhaps explains why William Hill may have been so unintentionally generous with their odds.
A more recent report from the Department of Work and Pensions based on ONS stats looked at different generations of brits and compared their chances of reaching 100. According to The Guardian, in 2011, the “average chance of a 20-year-old to reach 100 is 23%”. Any people “aged 50 in 2011 have a 14.2%” of reaching triple digits, whilst “a further ten years reduces your chances by 2.2%, and by the time they reach 70 the average Briton will be at 10.4%”.
At around the age of 83 or 84, someone has the lowest chance of making it to 100, at around 7%. In short, this is the tipping point where years in the bag begin to outweigh other benefits as we noted earlier. From 85 onwards a person becomes increasingly likely to make it, their percentages reaching a high of 67% once they reach 99. Whilst that might sound highly encouraging, if we may go glass-half-empty for a moment, it leaves us with the rather gloomy truth that around one in three 99 year olds will die within the year, falling just shy of glory!
“One in Three of Today’s Babies”
Once again, these stats are unadjusted for lifestyle and other health factors but based on these 2011 numbers, babies born that year had an almost 30% chance of reaching 100. For women born that year it was even higher at almost 34%. A more recent still answer was given by the ONS in 2016. They stated that “One in three of today’s babies will live to see their 100th birthday, according to latest estimates.” meaning that the chance of hitting 100 had increased fairly significantly in a relatively short period.
More specifically, the ONS noted that, “In 2016 there are estimated to be 783,000 babies under one year old and the latest projection suggests that 248,400 of these will live to see their 100th birthday, that’s one in every three.” Once again girls were more likely to be getting the letter from the Queen (she might still be going strong in 2116!) with over 35% of 2016’s girls predicted to reach 100 and around 28% of the boys forecast to do so.
So, whether you a bookie reading this facing the difficult task of offering someone odds, or an optimistic punter looking to back yourself to reach triple figures, hopefully it helps. After all that number-crunching we need a drink though, so we won’t be backing ourselves to reach the landmark!