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The United States consistently lags behind all other developed nations in life expectancy. The MacArthur Foundation, however, believes it has identified simple ways that Americans can expect to live to be 100 years old in the twenty-first century.

Where would you suppose the United States ranks in life expectancy, the average age at death of a baby born today? First? Second? Tenth?

Poor Showing for the USA in Life Expectancy Rankings

According to data compiled by the World Health Organization in 2011, the United States of American ranks 33rd among the nations of the world in life expectancy, just ahead of Cuba, and tied with Costa Rica, Chile, and Denmark. According to the United Nations World Prospects Project, in 2010 the United States ranked 40th in longevity at birth, behind Chile, Cuba, Denmark, Taiwan, and almost every country in Europe. And in data analyzed in 2012 by the US Central Intelligence Agency, the United States ranked behind 50 other nations in the world in longevity, behind recently troubled countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and countries that are much less prosperous, such as Jordan.

And to make matters worse, the US government doesn't see the prospects for longevity as improving very much between now and the year 2050. A study by the US Social Security Administration found that American life expectancy may increase about 3 years for men and 4 years for women, if the pace of medical discovery remains constant. In the meantime, many nations of the world have life expectancies 5 to nearly 15 years greater than the United States.

The Baby Boom Thunders into the Twenty-First Century

One of the reasons that population experts are so keenly interested in the longevity of Americans, and potential changes in longevity between now and the year 2050, is that a huge number of Americans were born between the years of 1945 and 1965. As soldiers returned home from World War II, and other Americans felt it was "safe" to start families, birth rates soared. 

In the United States, approximately 79 million babies were born in those two decades. Soldiers started returning home in August and September of 1945. The birth rate soared from 222,721 babies in January 1946 to 339,499 babies in August of 1946, and remained at nearly double current levels for nearly 20 years. 

The first of the baby boomers reached full retirement age in 2010. The last of the baby boomers will reach age 85 in the year 2050. Every additional year of life expectancy, of course, adds tens of billions of dollars to US government outlays in pensions and healthcare, so predicting how long people will live is a key to future budgets.

Many Years in Old Age

Americans (along with Russians and Mexicans) are especially prone to dying in accidents in childhood and youth. No other countries lose more of their citizens in road crashes, industrial accidents, and homicide. However, if an American makes it to the age of 65, there's a reasonable expectation of living more than a few years more.

The Social Security Administration estimated or estimates that for Americans:

  • If you were 65 years old in 2000, you could expect, on average, to live another 16 years if you were a man and another 19 years if you were a woman.
  • If you will turn 65 years of age in 2030, you can expect, due to improvements in healthcare, to live another 19 years if you are a man and another 22 years if you are a woman.
  • If you will turn 65 years of age in 2050, the Social Security Administration projedts that you will live another 20 years if you are a man and anotehr 23 years if you are a woman.

Americans of the future will live longer, just not very much. Or is there something the government prognosticators failed to consider?

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Olshansky SJ, Goldman DP, Zheng Y, Rowe JW. Aging in America in the twenty-first century: demographic forecasts from the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society. Milbank Q. 2009 Dec.87(4):842-62. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0009.2009.00581.x.
  • Olshansky SJ, Passaro DJ, Hershow RC, Layden J, Carnes BA, Brody J, Hayflick L, Butler RN, Allison DB, Ludwig DS. A Potential Decline in Life Expectancy in the United States in the 21st Century. New England Journal of Medicine.2005. 352:1138–45.
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