Populations typically differ in mean life spans because of genetic, environmental, or experimental factors. In this paper methods are presented that clarify the relationship between differences in the longevity of two populations and differences in their underlying age-specific patterns of mortality. Data are examined from rodent and fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) experiments that investigated the longevity effects of a variety of environmental and genetic manipulations, including temperature, dietary restriction, laboratory selection for increased longevity, and severe inbreeding. Analyses suggest that longevity differences mediated by temperature and dietary restriction result predominantly from differences in the rate of increase in mortality with age. Increases in longevity through laboratory selection result primarily from a reduction in baseline mortality and not a slowing of the rate of aging. Although the methods are applied primarily in the context of simple mathematical models of mortality (e.g., the Gompertz model), they are quite general and can be applied to mortality models of arbitrary complexity. Mathematica protocols ("notebooks") and computer software have been developed to perform all the analyses discussed and are available from the first author.