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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?

Living Longer In The Twenty-First Century

The MacArthur Foundation, best known for its "genius grants," commissioned a study of interventions that might increase the American life span in the twenty-first century. Specialists in human aging looked at several different scenarios, one in which Americans continued to depend on medications for treating their problems of aging and there are no major breakthroughs in treating the diseases of aging, and one in which Americans win their struggles with obesity and smoking, regardless of the advances in medical technology.

  • If Americans continue to struggle with smoking and obesity, and there are no major developments in disease treatment, then a baby boy born in 2050 will be expected to live to be 80 and a baby girl will be expected to live to be 83.
  • If medical researchers create cures for the most common diseases of aging, then all other things being equal, a baby boy born in 2050 will be expected to live to be 83 and a baby girl will be expected to live to be 89.
  • But if Americans stop smoking and lose weight, at least in appreciable numbers, then by 2050 the life expectancy at birth of a baby boy will be 86 and the life expectancy of a baby girl will be 89.

That's still not as good as the life expectancy now in Monaco and Japan. But it's an improvement of 7 years. However, for the millenials (the baby boomers' children) who were born in 1985 and who will be reaching the retirement age of 65 in the year 2050.

  • If Americans somehow stop smoking and learn to control their weight, by the year 2050 an American man who is turning 65 can expect to live to be 92 and a woman who is turning 65 can expect to live to be 97.
  • And baby boomers--born in 1965 and turning 85 in the year 2050--who beat their war on weight and who don't smoke can expect to live to astonishing ages. On average, a man who turns 85 in the year 2050, in this scenario, can expect to live to be 98. A woman who turns 85 in the year 2050 can expect to live to be 102. It's not strictly speaking a logical inference from these data that if you're about 30 years old now and you don't smoke and manage not to gain weight you will live to be about 100 years old, but it's not an especially far-fetched idea, either.

Americans do not have to wait on medical science to achieve extraordinary life expectancy, greater than that of any other country in the world today. They need to eat less, smoke less, and exercise more, and maybe they will live to see 100 candles on their birthday cakes.

Read full article

  • 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.
  • Mindmap by steadyhealth.com
  • Photo courtesy of Doc Searls by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/docsearls/11245564124/

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