We Are Living Longer … Yay and Yikes!

The graying of America is now a widely recognized phenomenon that has inspired an intensified focus on the human aging process. The expectation that American children younger than 14 today will live to see their 100th birthday is beginning to seem a lot less far-fetched to many researchers who study longevity trends. {{more}} In 1930, 65 year olds could expect another 12.2 years of life. Now at 65 you can figure on another 18.5 years.

The prospect of living to 100 stirs up lots of emotions, but it is especially daunting for those who set the prices and payouts for pensions, annuities, life insurance and long-term care policies. Longer lives sharpen the problem of underfunded pension systems and indirectly threaten the retirement security of many Americans. The Society of Actuaries assembled leading demographers and scientists in 2002, when it was becoming apparent that people were living longer, to determine just how long the normal lifespan could get. They have been meeting every two years since and still have not answered the question. Some of their findings are interesting. You are more likely to reach 100 if you are married, if your parents lived into their 80s, and if you were born in the months from September through November. No one has an explanation yet for the third finding, but it may have something to do with the seasons and the foods available when today’s centenarians were infants and children.

The answer to how long is it possible to live is more complicated than anyone realized. Mortality, the researchers say, is driven by biology, environment, and personal choice. Some argue that the current obesity epidemic will wipe out longevity gains made by today’s over 80 generation.

Experts have some ideas about what is known about people who live well beyond the average age of death, which currently in the United States is about 78 years for males and females combined. They say that smoking has played a huge role in longevity. Fiifty years ago the U.S. surgeon general’s report warned Americans about the health hazards of cigarettes. In the years afterward, smoking prevalence declined. Male cancer deaths peaked in l994 and have since improved. Women started smoking later, but the number of lung cancer deaths for them has only recently started to decline.

The experts also say that genetics play a large role in longevity, even though they have not identified any one “protective gene” that confers extra-long life. People with a parent who lived past 80 show a 30 percent higher chance of avoiding diabetes and those with a parent who lived past 85 show a similar protection against Alzheimer’s disease.

Women continue to outlive men for basic biological reasons. However, it was found by studies, that the aging benefits of marriage disappear sooner for women than for men, mostly due to the caregiver role many wives take on which is often stressful and hard on their health. A depressing thought is that because women tend to outlive their spouses, they have no one to care for them when their health deteriorates and they are more likely to wind up in long-term care. Another good reason for women to marry men who are younger than they are!

Joanne Byrne served as Senior Services Coordinator for the Town of Orange. She is now actively and happily retired. Email her at joannebyrne41@gmail.com to share your thoughts on retirement.