Dec. 14, 2009 -- A group of prominent researchers predict Americans living in the next 40 years will be much older than the government currently predicts.
Members of the MacArthur Research Network on an Aging Society released a report Monday contending that the U.S. Social Security Administration and Census Bureau have misjudged the average American lifespan in 2050 by three to eight years.
By the group's estimates women would to live to be 89 to 94 on average instead of the government's estimate of 83 to 85 years. For men, the group expects they will live to be 83 to 86 instead of the government's projection of 80 years average life expectancy in 2050.
S. Jay Olshansky, co-author of the report, said a few extra years life might not sound important, but it will cost us socially and financially.
"The economic implications for the U.S. economy are huge. We estimated we would be spending $3.2 to $8.3 trillion more in today's dollars than currently projected," said Olshansky, a professor in the school of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Olshansky sees a future where more people will demand new transportation methods, medical care and new retirement paths than the younger population can provide.
Americans Better at Staying Alive
For decades, the government has issued lifespan projections that have proved to be reasonably accurate. A male born in the early 1900s was expected to reach his 60s, while a male born in 2005 was projected to make it to age 74, according to projections by the U.S. Social Security Administration.
But Olshansky and his colleagues argue the government's projections don't take into account the likelihood that current advances in biomedical technology could lengthen lifespans. His aging group predicts these advances will fight diseases in a new way or even slow the aging process.
"The government is anticipating that the rate of improvement in life expectancy will decelerate," said Olshansky, who published the report Monday in The Milbank Quarterly. "We suggest the opposite."
Medicine has already begun to fight cancer based on an individual's genes, leading many to expect a boost in life expectancy. Olshansky and colleagues also theorize that advances made in animal research with translate to humans, such as experiment that showed gene and hormone manipulation have prolonged the life.
Can Science Advance Our Lifespan Still?
"I think it sounds reasonable," said Dr. Sharon Brangman, chief of geriatrics at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y.
"But I'm not sure if you can attribute it [increased life expectancy] to one factor: people are taking better care of themselves in middle age, the messages about smoking have gotten out and we are doing a good job at reducing some of the risk factors of heart disease."
Dr. Cheryl Phillips, president of the American Geriatrics Society, was leery of promises to fight aging, but she agreed that biomedical technology will likely increase our lifespan by fighting diseases.
"We have not cured mortality. People are going to die," said Phillips. "This kind of research doesn't mean we've eliminated aging, but it does mean we can target some specific diseases."
But Phillips, Olshansky and Brangman all warn that living longer is not always an ideal situation. In fact, they all predict those extra years of life can cause personal and society-wide problems especially since people are having fewer children than a generation ago.
What's So Bad About Living Longer?
"For the short term that is a real concern. Very realistic estimates for 2030, is that one in five Americans will be over 65," said Phillips. "That means more years for people who have dementia, who have problems living independently."
Even if the Olshansky's prediction is wrong, those who treat the elderly foresee a heavy strain on society in the next 40 years.
"As people age, the older they get the more likely they are to be burdened with functional impairments," said Phillips. "Many people you talk to don't want to live to 120 if they are going to be in a wheelchair since they were 80."
Geriatric experts expect the strain of an aging society will weigh heavily on the young as well.
Can We Care for the Elderly?
Phillips also pointed out that America relies on unskilled, cheap immigrant labor to care for the elderly, but there is no guarantee that this labor source will continue in the future.
"We also are going to have changes in the American workforce where we won't have enough skilled people to fill in the missing slots," said Brangman. "We will have a big skill and brain drain."
Olshansky and colleagues argue that some of these downfalls of an aging society can be prevented, if medicine can get people living healthier as they age and if society can work around the logistics of aging.
"We're talking about refashioning education, developing new working opportunities for elder population, the idea of retirement, transportation will have to change," said Olshansky.
"The time to plan for this is now," he said.