More than one study suggests not.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the average life expectancy has been increasing ever since 1900, dipping only slightly during the two world wars. But for now, at least, the progress has stopped. Life expectancy at birth peaked in 2014 at 78.9 years. For the next couple of years life expectancy actually inched down, to 78.7.
Then Covid hit. In 2020 life expectancy dropped to 77.2, and in 2021 it dipped again to 76.6.
The more relevant number for us, however, might be average life expectancy at age 65 — which of course is much higher since we’ve already survived plenty of slings and arrows. So for people who are now 65, you on average can expect to live to 84.6.
Of course, we’re not all the same. If you’re a 65-year-old man you’ve only got 18 more years. If you’re lucky enough to be a woman you can expect to live another 21 years.
There are a lot of individual differences. Unfortunately, a lot of us are not as healthy as we could be. In my own case, I’m healthier than my mother, who got breast cancer in her 60s (but lived to age 89), but I’m not as healthy as my dad who was perfectly fine until just a few months before he died at age 91.
A RAND study from 2019 focused on a group of people age 54 – 60 (who are now age 57 – 63). Comparing measurements to a similar study from 1992 the survey found “particularly large increases in rates of obesity, diabetes and, perhaps surprisingly, self-reported pain levels.” The study also found more people in this age group had difficulty performing routine daily activities. The conclusion: on average we are not as healthy as our parents were at our age.
The silver lining to the health cloud: fewer people are smoking compared to 1992. Only 8% of people age 65 or over currently smoke cigarettes.
Obesity seems to present the biggest health issue. The share of older people with class II obesity, defined as a BMI of over 35, tripled from 5% to 15% between 1992 and 2016. And class II obesity brings on a full plate of health issues, including “very high risk level of diabetes.”
The study also showed a growing health disparity based on education and income. The middle class is getting sicker, but the poor are getting sicker even faster. Part of the disparity is behavioral. In general, poorer people smoke more, drink more, take more drugs, are more obese. Part of the disparity is situational. Poorer people tend to live in more dangerous neighborhoods; they suffer more environmental problems such as smog and tainted water; they have less access to doctors and medical facilities.
The surprising conclusion, however, is that despite a temporary longevity setback from Covid, and a persistent problem from obesity, diabetes and heart disease, as well as other factors such as depression, accidents and crime, the experts expect our average longevity to once again start to increase.
Largely this is due to advances in science and medicine. Or as the study puts it, “It may be that the health of individuals in their late 50s declined over time due to increasing levels of unhealthy behavior, but that continually improving medical technology has offset these behaviors.”
In other words, the medical establishment is saving us from ourselves. And Medicare is paying for it. Thank you all! But after reading all these reports, I’m beginning to worry that we’ll end up living for a long time, but our lives will turn out to be an endless series of aches and pains and medical problems. Who wants to live to be 90 if we have to guzzle drugs with nasty side-effects and keep getting poked with painful procedures that are embarrassing and humiliating?
So I’m beginning to think that maybe I should shed a few pounds. (My BMI clocks in at 27, which tips me into the “overweight” category — you can calculate your own BMI at this BMI calculator
.) Maybe I should make a point of getting more exercise on a more consistent basis. And maybe I should do what my mother always told me — lay off the sweets and eat my vegetables.