What if baby boomers don’t live forever?

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What if the generation that once rocked out to The Who’s “hope I die before I get old” line actually does?

Most retirement plans and federal budget projections assume baby boomers — those Americans born between 1946 and 1964 — will live significantly longer than their parents have. That is a logical assumption, given healthcare improvements, new drugs and the long 20th century experience of ever-rising life expectancies, according to a report at Fox News.

But there is a counter argument: boomers, beset by factors like elevated rates of obesity, cancer and suicide, could reverse or at least slow the increase in human life spans. A change in trend could have a bearing on everything from Social Security trust fund balances to the number of nursing homes and golf courses supported in the future.

“It does not bode well for the baby boom generation at all,” says S. Jay Olshansky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has been studying boomer longevity under a MacArthur Foundation grant.

One new study, led by Rice University professor Justin Denney, concludes that it would be a mistake to project the longevity gains of the last century throughout this one. Yet that is about what the trustees who estimate the future solvency of the U.S. Social Security retirement program have been doing.

Denney notes a “huge increase” of 30 years in U.S. life expectancy from 1900 to the 2000s. But he and fellow researchers see a mere three-year increase over the next 50 years, with improvements in longevity concentrated among the well-to-do, while poorer people will not share in the same benefits.

To be sure, the trajectory of American lifespans is stirring great debate among epidemiologists, actuaries and other experts. Most say mortality will continue to decline and people will live longer. But some experts believe that trend will slow.

Multiple threats

“If you look at the health status of the baby boom versus the generation that just preceded them, they are in worse shape,” says Olshansky.

“There is a whole suite of problems we are now seeing in the baby boom generation that we didn’t see in their parents when they were that age,” Olshansky said, citing greater frailty, increased risk for cardiovascular disease and declining cognitive function.

Baby boomers, now between 48 and 67 years old, have already shown a greater propensity to suicide than previous generations, according to a data analysis from researchers at Rutgers University and Emory University.

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1 Comment

  1. Very interesting. I think there may be something to the counter-view of contiuning gains in longevity. This thought has occurred to me. This is the first article I’ve seen that expresses this veiwpoint. Can you give me a cite to the Rice University article?Thanks for the posting!

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