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The Longevity Revolution: The Danger of Thinking It's Just About Social Security and Medicare

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The Longevity Revolution is Here
(Image by Bernard Starr)
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Some years ago, a retail homegoods company created the catchy slogan "It ain't just paint" to tell the public that their stores sold much more than paint. The ad campaign apparently failed since the company went bankrupt.

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The longevity revolution, marked by unprecedented gains in life expectancy with the prospect of continued increases, faces a similar dilemma: "It ain't just Social Security and Medicare." But unlike the management of the paint and housewares stores, politicians and advocates for the elderly pretend that the longevity revolution is almost entirely about Social Security and Medicare. Thus, they offer facile "just" solutions: "Just do this" or "just do that" and the challenges of the explosive aging of society are solved.

But the deal is far from done. More radical thinking and revamping will be necessary to create a viable society for all ages.

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The immediate task is to recognize that life extension around the globe brings us into uncharted territory. And we don't know the consequences of this monumental societal shift. We are entering a vast sociological no-man's land.

A single statistic cited decades ago by Dr. Ken Dychtwald, founder of Age Wave, should have awakened us to the cataclysmic implications of the demographic shift we are facing: "For 99 percent of the time humans have inhabited this planet, life expectancy at birth was less than 18 years of age." In Classical Greek and Roman times life expectancy was less than age 40, which remained the same through the Middle Ages in Europe. What is celebrated as the explosive life extension of the longevity revolution is a very recent phenomenon.

Societies have always been dominated by the young. Now, for this first time in human history, we are witnessing older adults age 60 plus comprising the largest segment of society when you break down age groups in the U.S. into infants, young children, adolescents, young adults, and middle and late middle-aged adults. And that trend will only continue, as life expectancy increases to who-knows-what levels.

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Keep in mind that all of the advances in longevity since 1900, from an average of age 49 to today's average of 78.8 (81.2 for women and 76.4 for men and several years higher in many other countries), can be traced to public health measures (clean water, advances in sewage and waste disposal, etc.), the introduction of vaccines, and the advent of antibiotics. None of the increases are based on breakthroughs in cellular biology or penetration of the genetic aging code.

But now laboratories around the globe are working on unlocking the mysteries of the biology of aging with some encouraging results and the prospect looms of significant advances that could catapult life expectancy to science fiction levels. What then? More "justs"?

Should we worry?

In the graphic illustrations below, provided by the United Nations, we can see the dramatic shift in demographics from 1950 to the projection for 2100.They tell a compelling story that should wake us up and shake us up. But that has not yet happened.

Confirming that we are still asleep--or in denial--about the vast implications of the longevity revolution, the presidential debates and campaign speeches on the left and right have been mired in the narrow vision of "just this and just that" for Social Security and Medicare. Nowhere do we see a grasp of the bigger picture, as in the diagrams below. Are politicians being honest or are they dodging political bullets or a "third rail" ("Touch it and you die") issue that might affect re-election?


World population aging 1950-2100
(Image by United Nations)
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The 1950 pyramid shows most of the population at the bottom--the younger ages. In the 2010 pyramid the upper ages expand. The 2050 projection shows the upper ages increasing explosively--and that expands further in the projection for 2100. Most notably, in 2100 a dramatic shift occurs in which the representation is no longer a pyramid. And the 2100 demographics widen what once was the peak of the pyramid. The shift is even more dramatic for developed nations.

If we continue the trajectory into the future, at some point the demographics will be represented by a reverse pyramid: even fewer at the younger ages and most of the population in the later years. The younger population will be further diminished when we add to the picture the alarming drop in birth rates below replacement levels in most of the industrialized world .


Anticipated reverse pyramid adapted from UN data
(Image by UN)
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http://www.bernardstarr.com

Bernard Starr, PhD, is a psychologist and Professor Emeritus at CUNY (Brooklyn College), where he directed a graduate program in gerontology. His latest book is "Jesus, Jews, And Anti-Semitism In Art:How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus' Jewish (more...)
 

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