[Paleopsych] NYT: Social Security Underestimates Future Life Spans, Critics Say
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Tue Jan 4 21:22:09 UTC 2005
Social Security Underestimates Future Life Spans, Critics Say
NYT December 31, 2004
By ROBERT PEAR
WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 - When the federal government assesses
the long-term financial problems of Social Security, it
assumes that increases in life expectancy will be slow and
measured. But many population experts say they believe that
Americans' life expectancy will increase rapidly in the
21st century, making the program's financial problems even
President Bush and Congress are preparing for a debate over
the future of Social Security, whose solvency depends not
only on factors including productivity, inflation and birth
rates but also on how long beneficiaries will be living.
Life expectancy at birth increased by 30 years in the last
century, and many independent demographers, citing the
promise of biomedical research and the experience of some
other industrialized countries, predict significant
increases in this century. The Social Security
Administration foresees a much slower rise.
"Life expectancy will make a very big difference in the
fiscal viability of Social Security, but the agency's
projections of longevity appear too conservative," said
Prof. Samuel H. Preston of the University of Pennsylvania,
one of the nation's leading demographers.
Dr. Preston said the agency assumed that "past advances in
life expectancy are unrepeatable, even though the medical
research establishment is routinely producing important
breakthroughs that reduce the incidence or fatality of a
variety of diseases."
Richard M. Suzman, associate director of the National
Institute on Aging, a unit of the National Institutes of
Health, said: "There is a long history of government
actuaries and statisticians underestimating future gains in
life expectancy. The United States is unfortunately well
below the outer limits of life expectancy. Other countries
are doing much better. That gives us an indication of the
potential room for improvement."
Tables published by the government's National Center for
Health Statistics show that life expectancy at birth was
47.3 years in 1900, rose to 68.2 by 1950 and reached 77.3
in 2002. The latest annual report of the Social Security
trustees projects that life expectancy will increase just
six years in the next seven decades, to 83 in 2075. A
separate set of projections, by the Census Bureau, shows
more rapid growth.
Social Security says male life expectancy at birth will be
81.2 years in 2075. The Census Bureau, using different
methods and assumptions, says that level will be reached
much earlier, in 2050.
Likewise, Social Security says female life expectancy will
reach 85 years by 2075, while the Census Bureau says it
will exceed 86 in 2050.
For the American population as a whole in the last century,
most of the gains in life expectancy at birth occurred from
1900 to 1950. But most of the gains in life expectancy
among people who had already reached age 65 were seen after
Last year an expert panel advising the Social Security
Administration found "an unprecedented reduction in certain
forms of old-age mortality, especially cardiovascular
disease, beginning in the late 1960's."
The panel said Social Security was wrong to assume a slower
decline in mortality rates among the elderly in the next 75
years. Rather, it said, the government should assume that
mortality will continue to decline as it did from 1950 to
Ronald D. Lee, a professor of demography and economics at
the University of California, Berkeley, said: "I foresee
death rates of the elderly in the United States continuing
to decline at the same pace they have declined since 1950.
In fact, there is evidence that the pace of decline in
other developed countries has accelerated in recent
The Social Security Administration defends its assumptions.
"There is a wide range of opinion among experts on this
issue," said Mark Hinkle, a spokesman for the agency. "In
the last few years, we've moved a bit closer to the
position of other agencies and demographers."
Some experts say other factors could ease the effects of
longer life on Social Security's solvency.
"The higher costs associated with longer life expectancy
could be offset in several ways that do not involve a
reduction of Social Security benefits," said John R.
Wilmoth, another demographer at Berkeley.
People who live longer could work longer, for instance. Or
the size of the working-age population could increase
because of higher birth rates or a larger number of
Further, some population experts foresee developments that
could wind up buttressing the forecasts of the Social
Security Administration. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of
epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of
Illinois at Chicago, said the era of large increases in
life expectancy might be nearing an end, with the spread of
obesity and the possible re-emergence of deadly infectious
"There are no lifestyle changes, surgical procedures,
vitamins, antioxidants, hormones or techniques of genetic
engineering available today with the capacity to repeat the
gains in life expectancy that were achieved in the 20th
century" with antibiotics, vaccinations and improvements in
sanitation, Dr. Olshansky said.
Indeed, he said, without new measures on obesity and
communicable diseases, "human life expectancy could decline
in the 21st century."
On the other hand, said James W. Vaupel, director of the
program on population, policy and aging at Duke University,
life expectancy in the United States is far from any
natural or biological limits.
"Experts have repeatedly asserted that life expectancy is
approaching a ceiling," Dr. Vaupel said. "These experts
have repeatedly been proved wrong."
At various times, different countries have had the highest
reported at-birth life expectancy. But with "remarkable
regularity" over the last 160 years, Dr. Vaupel said, life
expectancy in the leading country has increased an average
of three months a year, or 2.5 years a decade.
David A. Wise, a Harvard professor who is director of the
program on aging at the private, nonpartisan National
Bureau of Economic Research, said: "Almost all demographers
outside the government think that death rates will continue
to fall faster than the decline incorporated in the
projections of the Social Security Administration. Most
think life expectancy will increase more rapidly than
Social Security says. That's not good for the finances of
Nor do economists generally foresee a reversal of the trend
toward early retirement. Though researchers have observed a
significant decline in chronic disability among the
elderly, most workers retire and begin drawing Social
Security benefits before they reach 65.
Labor unions and some politicians have resisted efforts to
raise the eligibility age for full benefits. Such
proposals, they say, penalize workers who have spent their
lives in physically demanding jobs.
Alicia H. Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement
Research at Boston College, said, "Increases in life
expectancy at 65 have been a major contributor to the
rising cost of Social Security." Future increases could
strain pension plans and individual retirement savings, as
well as Social Security, she said.
"The United States is the richest major country in the
world in terms of per capita gross domestic product," Dr.
Munnell said. "And life expectancy is clearly associated
She added, though, that "if you focus on life expectancy at
age 65, the U.S. falls in the middle of the pack."
One reason, she said, is that "the United States is not so
rich relative to its peers if you look at the average
income going to the lowest 40 percent of the population."
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