Cover: Mortality Expectations of Older Mexicans

Mortality Expectations of Older Mexicans

Development and Testing of Survey Measures

Published May 6, 2014

by Emma Aguila, Abril Borges, Cielo Margot Castillejos, Ashley Pierson, Beverly A. Weidmer

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Research Questions

  1. How have researchers measured subjective expectations of mortality?
  2. What difficulties have respondents had in reporting their mortality expectations?
  3. Could a revised measure lessen the effects of those difficulties?

Individual subjective forecasts of one's own mortality or survival, referred to as mortality expectations, can affect economic decisions, such as consumption and saving. Such measures may be particularly useful when evaluating social programs serving older populations or otherwise analyzing populations with potentially high mortality rates. In an evaluation of a pension program in Yucatan, researchers found that low literacy, language barriers, and cultural biases hindered older adult respondents' ability to answer mortality-expectation questions and experimented with new ways of asking the questions. The initial version of the questions used a ruler with a numeric scale representing a percentage chance of living five more years. Researchers tried direct and indirect versions of the questions, versions with possible answers being contingent on answers to previous questions, and versions incorporating use of visual aids, and combinations of these variations. Through cognitive interviewing, they studied how respondents understood, processed, and responded to the survey items. They then used what they learned to revise the survey measures. The visual aids tested were the original numeric-scale ruler, a sliding ruler, stones, and stick figures. With their survey population, they had the most success using the stick figures for conditional questions and the stones for direct questions.

Key Findings

Respondents Experienced Several Difficulties in Reporting Their Mortality Expectations

  • Interviewers reported the most difficulties with respondents who had low levels of education or literacy, language barriers, bias against the nature of the question, or trouble seeing or understanding visual aids.
  • Interviewer error or method could also be a factor.

The Original Mortality-Expectation Question Did Not Work Well

  • Given interviewer debriefings, analysis of nonresponse, and interviewer comments, the question originally asked on the baseline and follow-up surveys (the chances of living to be a certain age) did not work well.

Other Ways of Asking the Question Can Yield Better Results

  • In U.S. interviews, the stick figures and the corresponding question series appeared to work well.
  • In Mexico interviews, the stones with the direct, unconditional series and the stick figures with the indirect, conditional series worked best.
  • Cognitive interviewing in this population can provide valuable information on how respondents understand survey items.
  • Some visual aids might hinder rather than help in eliciting a response.
  • In a population with low levels of literacy, eliciting numerical answers poses a particular challenge.
  • In an older Mexican population with low levels of education and a high percentage of Mayan speakers, asking respondents to think of others like themselves (using the visual aid of the stick figures) was helpful, as was the visual aid of stones paired with direct mortality-expectation questions.


  • Test survey items using cognitive interviews with small groups of respondents prior to including those items on a larger survey.

The research described in this report was made possible with funding from the government of the state of Yucatan, the U.S. National Institute on Aging (NIA), the RAND Center for the Study of Aging, RAND Labor and Population, and the Center for Latin American Social Policy (CLASP).

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