- By Winnie Yu
Most of us who live past middle age expect to be around for many years to come. Current research indicates that we're probably right: According to the Older Americans 2012 report by the federal National Institute on Aging, those of us who make it to age 65 will most likely live another 19.2 years.
But some experts who have taken a closer look at the nation's overall health indicators are starting to wonder whether we’ll really live as long as we think, or whether we're about to see a slowdown in American life expectancy. A recent Rice University study found that while American life expectancy rose nearly 30 years from 1900 to 2000, it may only rise by three years over the next half-century — and that increase will be experienced almost exclusively by the wealthy.
(MORE: Should We Be Told Our Life Expectancy?)
The concern comes into sharper focus when one compares current life expectancy in the U.S. with that of other developed countries. A woman who reaches the age of 65 in Japan, for example, can now expect to live 3.7 years longer than a similar woman in the U.S.; Japanese men of similar age have a life expectancy 1.3 years greater than their American counterparts.
Why Life Expectancy May Drop
What's happening? Experts attribute the subtle slowdown in the rise of American life expectancy to a variety of behaviors, health conditions and socioeconomic factors:
Obesity. Poor nutrition and lack of physical activity have conspired to create burgeoning waistlines that threaten to shorten our lives, says Bruce Carnes, Ph.D., a professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. More than 35 percent of the U.S. population is now obese, a trend that surged between 1990 and 2010, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Obesity can be especially problematic for older adults, and yet, according to the Older Americans report, 38 percent of Americans age 65 and over were obese in 2009-2010, compared with an average of just 22 percent from 1988 to 1994.
What’s growing, too, is the number of people who have been obese for a long period of time, and who are more likely to have their weight negatively impact their overall health. “We are assuming that with obesity, like with smoking, the cumulative effects will build up,” says Steve Goss, chief actuary for the Social Security Administration (SSA). “The longer you’re obese, the longer it will stress your system and compromise your life expectancy.” Younger generations, with even higher rates of long-term obesity, will face steeper health challenges.
- Poor overall health. The inactivity and high-calorie diet that has fed the nation's obesity rate has fostered a variety of related health problems including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome, Carnes says. Heart disease remains America's leading cause of death, accounting for one in every three deaths, according to the American Heart Association. Additionally, Carnes suspects that a rise in antibiotic-resistant microbes will play a role in limiting American life expectancy in the years ahead.
- Smoking. Cigarette smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., according to the CDC. More than 19 percent of Americans over 18 smoke, a public health concern that continues to be a drag on overall life expectancy. Life expectancy for American women would rise by more than two years if deaths attributed to smoking could be eliminated; men would see an average gain of two-and-a-half years. (Experts believe that declining rates of cigarette use among younger Americans will lessen smoking's impact on life expectancy decades from now, especially for women, but those gains could be more than offset by the rise in obesity among younger people.)
- Disparities in health-care access. The lack of universal health care plays a role in holding back life expectancy, according to National Academy of Sciences research. Many countries with longer life expectancies than the U.S. have universal health care, including Japan, Canada and the nations of Scandinavia. This disparity becomes less relevant once Americans reach age 65 and Medicare kicks in, but by then, the damage caused by limited access to preventive care may already be done.
Education and race. How long Americans live is profoundly shaped by race, ethnicity and level of education. A recent study published in the journal Health Affairs found that, on average, African-Americans and Hispanics who had 16 or more years of education lived 7.5 and 13.6 years longer, respectively, than whites who had less than 12 years of education. When that same study compared people with similar education levels across ethnic groups, stark differences emerged. Highly educated African-Americans live 4.2 fewer years than whites with the same education, and 6.1 fewer years than Hispanics with the same schooling. Most striking, white American males with at least 16 years of education live 14.2 years longer than African-Americans with fewer than 12 years of education. Among women, the difference is 10.3 years.
"These gaps have widened over time and have led to at least two 'Americas,' if not multiple others, in terms of life expectancy," wrote the study's lead author, University of Illinois at Chicago public health professor S. Jay Olshansky. He speculates that younger Hispanic or African-American baby boomers, and those with lower socioeconomic status, may very well experience lower life expectancy than comparable older Americans do today.
- Mental health and suicide. One reason the boomer generation is "in worse shape" than the generation that immediately preceded it, Olshansky says, is that it has much higher rates of mental illness, depression, drug-abuse and suicide. Recent Emory University research found, for example, that boomer suicide rates rose significantly when members of the group reached their 40s, an age at which, in previous generations, rates consistently declined.
The Potential Impact on Social Security
Life expectancy and mortality rates are crucial data when it comes to calculating the nation’s ability to meet its future Social Security needs. Current SSA projections do not anticipate any major changes in American death rates. The agency projects an annual increase in life expectancy of about 0.65 percent each year, assuming there are no major medical breakthroughs such as a cure for cancer.
Based on those projections, Social Security will eventually face a shortfall, and over the next 75 years, according to the fund's estimates, it will need an infusion amounting to an estimated 2.67 percent of the nation's payroll. Congress could conceivably increase the tax on Social Security 2.67 percent, Goss says, raising it from the current 12.4 percent — split between employers and wage earners — to 15.07 percent. However, if research such as the Rice study proves true, and the nation's life expectancy rises more slowly or even declines over the next several decades, it could have a major impact on the fund's solvency. If life expectancy remained flat for the next 75 years, that could eliminate one-sixth of the fund's shortfall.