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The perils of advanced age have made headlines in recent weeks, after President Joe Biden struggled to express himself clearly in a televised June 27 debate with his political opponent, former president Donald Trump. 

But while his age is a topic of global discussion, Biden is not the oldest head of state on the world stage. 

Pope Francis
Pope Francis. Credit: Unsplash.

Pope Francis, head of the Vatican City State — and the Catholic Church — is 87, six years older than the U.S. president, making him the fourth oldest head of state in the world, among governments recognized as states by the Holy See itself. 

The three who are older are: President Biya of Cameroon, 91, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, 88 — the Holy See recognized Palestine as a state in 2015 — and King Salman al Saud of Saudi Arabia, 88.

The pope does not face the rigors of an election cycle, and popes normally serve until death. 

Pope Francis is already the eighth oldest pope in history and many of his key advisors are not much younger, so it is perhaps understandable that there have been discussions in some corners of the Church about how much longer Francis’s papacy might last — and what might come after it.

Only God knows how many days will be granted to the pope. 

But while most discussions of the topic are plagued with rumor and innuendo, actuarial tables, derived from statistical analysis of lifespans, can provide a basic understanding of the probabilities that come with aging. 

With the help of Mary Pat Campbell, a Pillar reader (in a good way) and an actuary specializing in mortality data, The Pillar brings you the numbers.

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If you search for data on life expectancy, you’ll often see a chart like this, which indicates that the current life expectancy in Italy is 83.28 years old:

If the life expectancy in Italy is 83, and Pope Francis is currently 87, you might think that he’s likely to die at any time.

But life expectancy trend charts are based on the life expectancy of a population from birth. If a country suffers frequent deaths in childhood or young adulthood, that reduces the average life expectancy from birth.

In the above chart, for Italy, both world wars caused dips in the average life expectancy, because of the number of younger people who died during the wars.

And the trends expressed in a life expectancy chart may not actually have any relevance to calculating the life expectancy of someone who is already old. 

If you want to know how long someone aged 87 is likely to live, the fact that many people in that country die young because of sickness or violence is not relevant.  

Instead the question is this: if you looked at a group of 87-year-olds, how long could you expect most of them to live?

That type of statistical analysis is all about finding the right population for comparison. 

If you want to look at a group of 87-year-olds and their likely longevity, the question is this: What kind of 87-year-olds are the correct comparison group?

Some health factors which are important at younger ages become less important at more advanced ages. 

For example, when The Pillar asked Campbell to help calculate the likely longevity of the pope and various cardinals, her question was direct: Which ones are smokers?

Regular smokers generally have a somewhat lower life expectancy  —about nine years lower — than non-smokers. But this effect diminishes among smokers who live to be quite old. 

In other words, whether you smoked a lot may affect your chances of living to 87, but once you’re 87, smoking is less of a factor in how much longer you’re likely to live.

As it happens, Pope Francis is a non-smoker and does not like cigarettes. But Pope Benedict XVI was a smoker, who nevertheless beat the statistical odds and lived to 95.

A bigger factor in predicting longevity among elderly people is the country a person comes from,  or lives in. 

An 87-year-old man in Chile is less likely to live to 95 than one in the U.S., who is in turn less likely to reach 95 than an Italian, who is nonetheless less likely to be 95 than a Japanese man.

Pope Francis is of Italian ancestry but lived most of his life in Argentina. 

He has certain health challenges, including having had part of one lung removed surgically while he was still a young man. And yet now he lives in Italy and arguably receives better health care even than the average Italian.  

Should he be compared to South Americans, to Italians, or to an even more long-lived population? That’s hard to say. 

So to compare him to actuarial data, The Pillar used a range of data: we used a low estimate based on mortality tables for Chile, a medium option baked on Italian data, and a long-lived estimate based upon Japan. 

Based on those datasets, Pope Francis has a 77% to 79% probability of living two more years, to the age of 89.  

The pontiff has a 49% to 58% probability of living four more years to the age of 91, and a 21% to 32% chance of reaching the age of 94.

The pope’s chances of living to see his 100th birthday are between 2% and 5%.

But of course, it is not just the pope who has seen a few years. 

Many of Pope Francis’s key advisors and allies are also getting on in years, though none of them are quite as old as the pontiff himself.

Looking at key cardinals in the curia, papal advisors, and members of the Council of Cardinals who advise Pope Francis in a semi-official fashion, their ages range from 64 to 80.

Based on their ages and the mortality probabilities for men of their age in their countries of birth (or if unavailable, another country with similar mortality), The Pillar calculated the mortality probability for these key advisors.

Based on this data, actuaries would expect that one of the pope’s key advisors would die within the next two years (as Cardinal Pell did in 2023.) 

Within the next five years  — a period which Pope Francis himself has a 38% to 48% of surviving — probability would suggest 2.8 deaths within the pontiff’s inner circle.

As modern medicine and nutrition continue to extend lifespans, these mortality probabilities among papal advisors may be a situation the Church faces more often. 

Pope Benedict XVI was 85 years old when he resigned in 2013, but he lived to the age of 95.

Pope Francis is already older than Pope Benedict was when he resigned. While there is only a 15% to 25% probability that Pope Francis will live to the same age, those are probabilities which are still quite possible.

Pope Benedict XVI may have been the oldest pope in history when he died at 95 (there is controversy among Church historians as to how old Pope St. Agatho was when he died in 681 A.D., with one tradition suggesting that he was 104 years old, while others maintain this is the result of confusing the pope with a monastic of the same name.)

Papal advisors will also become older as life expectancy increases. 

However, with those increased ages come increased likelihood of death: which means that the aging in the Vatican will continue to be an area of discussion and speculation as the years pass.

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