Current government projections may significantly underestimate the future life expectancy of Americans, according to new research from the MacArthur Research Network on an Aging Society published in The Milbank Quarterly. The research finds that by 2050 Americans may live 3.1 to 7.9 years longer than official government projections, resulting in sharply higher costs for government programs that serve older citizens. The findings are based on the premise that the risk of death in the coming decades will be reduced by accelerated advances in biomedical technology that delay the onset and progression of major fatal diseases or that slow the aging process.

The researchers forecast that by 2050 life expectancy for females will rise to 89.2-93.3 years and to 83.2-85.9 years for males. The U.S. Census Bureau and the Social Security Administration project life expectancy in 2050 of 83.4-85.3 years for females and 80.0-80.9 years for males. Government agencies in the U.S. project lower increases in life expectancy than the Network because these agencies assume improvements in mortality in the coming decades will decelerate.

“This is the first published scientific evidence demonstrating how interventions that slow aging in people would influence the future course of mortality, life expectancy, and population aging in a single country,” said Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, Professor, School of Public Health, University of Illinois at Chicago and one of the authors of the study. “Even small changes in life expectancy produce large changes in the number of older Americans. Therefore, our projections of longer life expectancy have profound implications for America’s fiscal situation, health care system, and labor markets. How we address the challenges and opportunities posed by an aging society requires additional research and the sustained attention and engagement of policymakers and the public.”

The study estimates that cumulative outlays for Medicare and Social Security could rise by $3.2 to $8.3 trillion from current government projections by 2050. Researchers also point out that longer life expectancy has positive implications for society, including new and expanded markets in health care and leisure and a more experienced work force.

“This research renews concerns about the nation’s fiscal health, as a larger population of older Americans means even greater federal entitlement spending and more competition for discretionary resources”, said Dr. Dana Goldman, University of Southern California and the RAND Corporation, and co-author of the study.

“By the middle of the next decade, the United States will become an aging society with those over age 60 outnumbering those under age 15,” said Dr. John Rowe, who chairs the MacArthur Research Network and is Professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and former CEO of Aetna. In the 1990s, Rowe chaired MacArthur’s Network on Successful Aging, which found that the factors predicting successful aging are not dominated by heredity but are at least equally related to lifestyle. The work resulted in a best-selling book, Successful Aging. “Although the nation will become increasingly gray in subsequent decades, the United States is not well prepared to deal with the myriad consequences of this impending reality. If the extension of life achieved in the coming decades can be converted into healthy productive years, then these challenges of our aging country could be counterbalanced by an equal measure of opportunity and the emergence of a productive and equitable aging society.”

The study authors are members of the MacArthur Research Network on an Aging Society, an inter-disciplinary group that seeks to help America prepare for the challenges and opportunities posed by our aging society. Participants represent a wide range of disciplines, including gerontology, psychology and health behavior, macroeconomics and public policy, social epidemiology, cognitive neuroscience, demography, and aging policy. The Network is supported by a three-year, $3.9 million MacArthur grant.

Drawing on the collective expertise of its members, the new Network will examine the potential benefits of remodeling the distribution of key activities, including education, work, and leisure, across the life course. Research and projects will focus on three themes:

  • the positive and negative impact of key intergenerational issues on families and society;
  • the development of meaningful roles for older people, both within and outside of the workforce; and
  • the potential effects that increasing diversity and inequalities may have on the structure, economy, and overall health of an aging society.

In addition to the current research on likely future increases in life expectancy and their financial consequences, the Network’s recent work includes an examination of the myths that are commonly held regarding our aging society, the general strategies that should be taken to develop policies that will lead to a better prepared America as we traverse the demographic transition, and the benefits of risk factor prevention in older Americans. More information about the Network’s work is available at agingsocietynetwork.org.

 

Read The Milbank Quarterly article

Facts & Fictions About an Aging America (Contexts, Fall 2009, PDF)

The Benefits of Risk Factor Prevention in Americans Aged 51 Years and Older (American Journal of Public Health, Nov 2009, PDF)

Policy Research, Aging, Policy, Research, United States

Dr. John Rowe, Chair of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society thumbnail

Dr. John Rowe, Chair of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society

Dr. Rowe discusses research published by the Network in December 2009 in The Milbank Quarterly, which finds that current government projections may significantly underestimate the future life expectancy of Americans by 3.1 to 7.9 ... Watch