High school reunion shocker: They’re dying off!

Forget the fun, warped mirrors of amusement parks. At your high school reunion, you'll experience true terror: an irrefutably accurate reflection of the march of time.

For the price of a single ticket home, you can witness the horrifying truth that your former classmates -- and you -- are getting old. Going gray, getting bald, growing soft. Dying.

No one is spared the jolt of this realization, and John Weeks, a geography professor at San Diego State University is no exception.   He was startled by what seemed like a long list of deceased classmates from his and his wife's 50th high school reunion.

"Our first reaction was shock at the number -- 43 out of a graduating class of 412 -- 10 percent," he writes on his educational blog, Weeks Population.

High school reunions: Who's left?So Weeks did some research. Using life expectancy tables from the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he calculated the expected rate of death for men and women of his generation. Double shock: His class was actually faring better than most.

In his class, 1962, 12 percent of the women had died, on par with the national average of 13 percent. But -- and if his class tally was complete -- only 9 percent of the men had died, well below the expected norm of 21 percent by the age of 68.

"In all events, it was sobering to realize that the initial number of dead classmates was not higher than we should have expected," Weeks wrote.

Wait, they died?

To younger graduates, a 20 percent mortality rate among great-grandparents might not seem surprising. So what can they expect when they pass the memorial table at their own earlier, more hair-abundant, reunions?

"It's always a shock," says Bari Belosa, who has organized more than 10,000 reunions as president  of Reunions Unlimited, in New Jersey. It remains startling news even as Facebook extends the social grapevine.

"You grow up thinking older people died. To find out a contemporary has died is a terrible shock, and it's a comment on your own mortality," she said. "This is somebody you went to school with, that you got on the school bus with, that you went to kindergarten with. It hits very close to home, and people are upset to see that."

Is your class typical?

At our request, a Florida actuarial firm agreed to calculate the expected number of deaths by various high school reunion dates. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Social Security Administration, Wakely Actuarial, based in Palm Harbor, Fla., provided rough averages for the American population as a whole. It assumed each class had an equal number of men and women.

On average, a graduating class of 330 seniors could expect the following number of classmates to die:

  • Three by the 10-year reunion.
  • Seven by the 20-year reunion.
  • Fifteen by the 30-year reunion.
  • Thirty-two by the 40-year reunion.
  • Seventy by the 50-year reunion.

"It's hard for me fathom," says Mike Polasky, the consulting actuary at Wakely who ran the numbers and recently attended his 20-year reunion. "I thought, 'We work on these numbers all the time, but when you internalize it, and think, from my high school class, one out of 50 died already, they seemed like high numbers to me.' "

What to expect for your class

To estimate the statistical death-rate norm for any class size, Polasky provided the following rough figures:

  • 10 year reunion -- 1 death per 100 graduates.
  • 20 year reunion -- 1 death per 50 graduates.
  • 30 year reunion -- 1 death per 20 graduates.
  • 40 year reunion -- 1 death per 10 graduates.
  • 50 year reunion -- 1 death per five graduates.

Again, these general statistical guidelines don't take into account demographic variables such as gender, income and ethnicity. An all-girls school can be expected to lose fewer graduates, for example, because women have a longer life expectancy. That’s also why women pay less for life insurance than men of the same age and health.

Americans with money and education also tend to live longer, in large part due to better health care. Perhaps for these reasons, states in the Deep South tend to have some of the highest mortality rates. African Americans also have the highest mortality rates in this country, followed by Caucasians, Hispanics and Asians.

In addition, the class of 1984 can expect to see more classmates at its 60th reunion than the class of 1954 will at its 60th this year, thanks to great leaps in longevity experienced in the 20th century.

After attending his own reunion with "too many reminders of 'Time's Wing'ed Chariot,' " former talk-show host Dick Cavett, writing in the The New York Times, wondered why he'd yet to attend another.

"I have an odd theory," he writes.

"Could it be an irrational fear of walking in to that registration room on Day One and -- in a moment out of ‘The Twilight Zone’ -- discovering my own picture on the ‘Those Who Have Left Us’ wall?”

More from Karen Aho here

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