[Paleopsych] Sex, Booze, and Getting Old - Welcome to the Human Nature blog. By William Saletan
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Thu Jan 6 15:08:42 UTC 2005
Sex, Booze, and Getting Old - Welcome to the Human Nature blog. By William
You and I are cultural and political creatures living in an age of
science and technology. From sexuality to liposuction to surveillance
to cloning, we're being overrun by technologies full of implications
about who we are and how we should live. The purpose of Human Nature
is to expose and discuss those implications. In the weeks to come,
what you'll find here is a steady diet of news updates and quick
takes, coupled with longer columns exploring some topics more
Let's start with a few updates.
Item: We're going to live longer than Social Security administrators
Source: "many population experts"
Outlet: New York Times, Dec. 31
Gist: Life expectancy at birth rose 21 years from 1900 to 1950 (47.3
to 68.2) and another nine years from 1950 to 2002, reaching 77.3
years. The Social Security Administration assumes life expectancy will
now grow more slowly, increasing only six years by 2075. Longevity
experts say this assumption is too low. Why? 1) Life expectancy has
increased by three months per year pretty regularly for 160 years. 2)
Government projections have historically underestimated increases in
longevity. 3) After 1950, although the rate of increase declined for
the general population, it increased for the population over age 65.
4) Our average life expectancy is far below any biological "ceiling."
Financial implication: We're doing such a good job of keeping people
alive that we're going to bankrupt ourselves.
Critique: Three of the four "expert" arguments are social science
dressed up as natural science. They're just demographic extrapolations
from the past to the future, with no biological theory to explain why
we could increase the longevity of old people as easily as we
increased the longevity of young people. The fourth argument is
biological but tells us only about a ceiling. It doesn't matter how
high the ceiling is if we don't have a ladder to get there--and that's
the argument on the other side. As the token skeptic puts it in the
Times, "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 20^th century."
Buried political story: Read down to the 10^th paragraph of the Times
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 1950. 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."
In other words, as old people increased their share of the country's
economic and political power, they consumed more of the country's
medical attention. Further down, the Times adds, "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."
Disability down. Cardiovascular disease down. Longevity up. Social
Security benefits earlier. This isn't a biological problem. It's a
Punch line: Two other problems may solve this one. One expert observes
that obesity is proliferating and lethal infectious diseases are
thriving in our increasingly connected world. Human self-destruction
may spare us the financial cost of human self-absorption.
Item: More adult women are having unprotected intercourse.
Source: National Center for Health Statistics
Outlet: Washington Post, Jan. 4
Gist: From 1995 to 2002, the percentage of sexually active adult women
not using contraception rose from 5.2 to 7.4. This could increase
unintended pregnancies by more than 20 percent.
Liberal spin: This is the tragic result of insufficient sex education,
too much abstinence-only curriculum, more people without insurance
coverage, and lower federal funding of family planning relative to
inflation. One liberal complains that drug companies "have cut way
back" on free samples and tells the Post, "It is absolutely
unconscionable that women have a co-pay of $20 or $25 [a month] for
contraceptives and men are getting off scot-free."
Critique: 1) If erosion of sex ed is the problem, why is contraceptive
use increasing among teenagers? 2) Before you blame health
insurers and drug companies, ask how safe, reliable, and expensive
birth control was before they got into it. 3) Doesn't "co-pay" mean
we're socializing some of the cost, and nobody's getting off
scot-free? 4) Have we really been relying on free samples to get birth
control to poor women? If so, shouldn't we make that subsidy public
and stop leeching off greedy drug companies?
Conservative spin: Women are rejecting birth control because they want
to get pregnant or don't like birth control's side effects. An
abstinence proponent tells the Post, "The women making these choices
are making a conscious choice. They are not stupid."
Critique: We'll quote you on that next time you propose
legislation--like, say, S. 2466--to regulate women's choices on
the grounds that they're dupes of the abortion industry.
Item: There's no evidence that commercial weight-loss programs work.
Source: Annals of Internal Medicine
Outlet: New York Times, Jan. 4
Gist: 1) Virtually no commercial diet program has "published reliable
data from randomized trials showing that people who participated
weighed less a few months later than people who did not participate."
2) Since there's no good evidence, maybe you should avoid the most
expensive programs. 3) The most expensive programs are supervised by
doctors. 4) "Doctors could do as well as these programs" just by
telling people to diet and exercise. 5) All diet programs fail because
"they're fighting biology."
Critique: Thanks for the help.
Item: Medicare will pay for alcoholism screening and for counseling to
Source: Medicare administrators
Outlets: New York Times, Dec. 24; Los Angeles Times, Jan. 2
Gist: Alcoholism screening begins this week. Coverage of smoking
cessation counseling begins in March. Both will cost a lot of money
but save more by preventing cancer, heart and liver disease, and other
Cultural analysis: We're socializing treatment of smoking and drinking
because we now view them as diseases, not vices.
Economic analysis: We socialized treatment of the consequences of
smoking and drinking when we created Medicare 40 years ago. Now we're
just cutting costs.
William Saletan is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of
Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War.
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