Hardly a day goes when when I don't read that we humans are living longer than ever before. By many years.
“...old age now mostly means we have more years on the clock than did our forbearers. A lot more.” (Next Avenue)
“There’s no doubt that we’re living longer than previous generations.” (Time magazine)
“People in developed nations are living in good health as much as a decade longer than their parents did. (Science Daily)
But the truth is, we are not living longer or, anyway, not by much and certainly not by a decade. The people who write this stuff are plain wrong.
Some cite the fact that there are billions more old people in the world than there were in the past but that's just because there are billions more people of every age on the planet nowadays. (You, perhaps, have heard of the population explosion even if those reporters have not.)
The main reason for these false assertions is a misreading of what “life expectancy” means and how it is measured.
Until the mid-20th century, large numbers of babies died in infancy and toddlerhood. So when you measure life expectancy from birth, including those babies in the average, it looks like life expectancy in your grandparents' – even parents' – day was only 45 or 50 years.
But if you measure life expectancy from, say age five, our parents and grandparents commonly lived into their sixties and beyond, as you and I expect to do. Here is some additional explanation from research scientist, Howard Friedman:
”The correct evaluation involves life expectancy at age 65, not at birth! The truth, surprising to many, is that the average increase in life expectancy for a 65-year-old is only about three or so years.
“The increase is even smaller for retirements at ages beyond 65. And the social security retirement age is already being raised by two years (to 67)...
“Reductions in infant and child mortality have been dramatic during the 20th century, but 65-year-olds today are not strikingly healthier or longer-living than 65-year-olds of the previous generation or two.
“If life were being extended for decades there would be lots of 115-year-old Americans running around, but there aren't any at all.
It is important that you understand when life expectancy is being wrongly reported because it affects a variety of public policy proposals.
One example: every election cycle, large numbers of political candidates, usually of a certain partisan stripe, try to tell voters that Social Security is unsustainable because millions of people are living decades longer than previous generations. Not true.
There are good reasons to tweak Social Security, but decrepit centenarians sucking up unplanned-for decades of benefits is not one of them.
Dr. Friedman goes on:
”...the hard truth is that most 65-year-olds today will not be collecting those extra Social Security checks and enjoying an additional dozen or more of the golden years. “On average, they'll live only a bit longer than their parents. Increased longevity is not a valid argument for changing Social Security payouts; it's phony.”
With Leslie R. Martin, Howard S. Friedman is the author The Longevity Project, the 2011 report of an eight-decade study of 1500 Californians analyzing what behavior and character traits were common to those who lived a long time.
It is a fascinating book written with laymen in mind with some surprising conclusions that contradict conventional wisdom. It is writing with laymen in mind and I highly recommend it.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Carl Hansen: Ice Cream, Noah and My Fear of Water