The price of preemies

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 6 2005 1:55 PM

The Price of Preemies

And other news from the techno-frontier.

(Continued from Page 5)

Gist: Life expectancy at birth rose 21 years from 1900 to 1950 (47.3 to 68.2) and another nine years from 1950 to 2002, reaching 77.3 years. The Social Security Administration assumes life expectancy will now grow more slowly, increasing only six years by 2075. Longevity experts say this assumption is too low. Why? 1) Life expectancy has increased by three months per year pretty regularly for 160 years. 2) Government projections have historically underestimated increases in longevity. 3) After 1950, although the rate of increase declined for the general population, it increased for the population over age 65. 4) Our average life expectancy is far below any biological "ceiling."

Financial implication: We're doing such a good job of keeping people alive that we're going to bankrupt ourselves.

Critique: Three of the four "expert" arguments are social science dressed up as natural science. They're just demographic extrapolations from the past to the future, with no biological theory to explain why we could increase the longevity of old people as easily as we increased the longevity of young people. The fourth argument is biological but tells us only about a ceiling. It doesn't matter how high the ceiling is if we don't have a ladder to get there—and that's the argument on the other side. As the token skeptic puts it in the Times, "There are no lifestyle changes, surgical procedures, vitamins, antioxidants, hormones or techniques of genetic engineering available today with the capacity to repeat the gains in life expectancy that were achieved in the 20th century."

Buried political story: Read down to the 10th paragraph of the Times article.

For the American population as a whole in the last century, most of the gains in life expectancy at birth occurred from 1900 to 1950. But most of the gains in life expectancy among people who had already reached age 65 were seen after 1950. Last year an expert panel advising the Social Security Administration found "an unprecedented reduction in certain forms of old-age mortality, especially cardiovascular disease, beginning in the late 1960's."

In other words, as old people increased their share of the country's economic and political power, they consumed more of the country's medical attention. Further down, the Times adds, "Nor do economists generally foresee a reversal of the trend toward early retirement. Though researchers have observed a significant decline in chronic disability among the elderly, most workers retire and begin drawing Social Security benefits before they reach 65."

Disability down. Cardiovascular disease down. Longevity up. Social Security benefits earlier. This isn't a biological problem. It's a political problem.

Punch line: Two other problems may solve this one. One expert observes that obesity is proliferating and lethal infectious diseases are thriving in our increasingly connected world. Human self-destruction may spare us the financial cost of human self-absorption.

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