New statistics just released indicate that the average American is destined to live a much longer life than his grandparents; in fact, in 2012, the average life expectancy in the United States rose to a record high of 78.8 years.
The latest report on US mortality in the USA has just been issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. As in previous years, women are shown to have an increased life expectancy of 81.2 years, whereas men have a typical lifespan of 76.4, with no change in the differential of 4.8 years.
Global life expectancy figures do still vary dramatically from country to country, however; whilst a Japanese person can expect to live up to 84.1 years, in Sierra Leona, average life expectancy is still just 47.5 years. But in developed countries with advanced healthcare and excellent nutrition and living conditions, the increase has been dramatic. The trend towards longer life has occurred only very recently, and has spiralled upwards very quickly: up until 1840, the lifetime of the average woman was calculated to be just 45 years, now it is almost double that.
If the trend continues, by the middle of this century, American life expectancy at birth will be around 88 years, and by the end of the century, it will be 100 years. Centenarians are becoming commonplace, and the global number of centenarians is projected to increase ten-fold between 2010 and 2050. Current estimates put the figure of total centenarians worldwide at around 450,000, though exact records are uncertain due to lack of documentation in some countries. The United States currently has the greatest number of known centenarians of any nation with 53,364 noted in the 2010 Census.
Though it may not boast the highest number of centenarians, Japan is known for the longevity of its people, and life expectancy there is the highest in the world at 83 years. It is also home to the oldest people on earth: Jiroemon Kimura of Japan was, until his death in June 2013 at age 116 years, 54 days, the world’s oldest living person whose age can be documented. Since Kimura’s death the title has been held by Misao Okawa, also of Japan, who was born 5 March 1898. Other claims to the title have been made but there is often no documented evidence to prove the age of such elderly people, particularly if they were born in very rural areas where births were not recorded.
Other claims have been found to be downright fraudulent: when officials went to congratulate the oldest man in Tokyo, Sogen Kato, on his birthday recently, his family were strangely reluctant to allow them to see the old gentleman. When the official deputation insisted on seeing Mr. Kato, they discovered his mummified skeletal remains lying in his bed. Japanese authorities believe that Mr. Kato may have been dead for up to thirty years!
Regardless of these record-holders, it is certain that the human race are living much, much longer than their ancestors. In principle, this is a wonderful thing, but what are the wider implications of this?
The effects of extending our lives in this way could affect every aspect of life, including social structure, marriage and relationships, economics, healthcare, food supply and even politics. The social structure of our people could be totally re-organised: the average length of retirement used to be 17 per cent of lifespan; now it is 22 per cent and rising fast. Will the age of retirement continue to rise, as it has in the United Kingdom? As it stands currently, many people are faced with the prospect of having spent all of their retirement savings long before their demise; early retirement options are initially appealing but do not take into account the possibility of recipients living until they are 100 years of age.
This problem becomes more of an issue for the long-term sick, as long life is not necessarily an indicator of good health. A recent report suggested that, whilst populations are living longer, they are also becoming more unhealthy, becoming a drain on families, health services, and the overall global economy as pensions and health insurance must pay out for longer and longer. Studies have also indicated that the elderly do not help to compensate or boost the economy by spending more, as, despite advertising pitches that have recognised a new and growing area of the market. . Neurological studies of healthy aging people show that the parts of the brain associated with reward-seeking become less active as they grow older, and therefore their value as consumers declines.
As longevity increases, so too does the number of living grandparents. According to their health and abilities, this could either help the families to prosper as the grandparents become involved in supporting the families, or offering childcare, or they could become a financial drain on their children and younger relatives, requiring costly care for decades. Loneliness is also a big factor to be considered, as working families are not always available to give the necessary time and care to their elderly relations. In Japan, where the oldest earth residents are already putting these theories to the test, there are some technology companies who are already exploiting this new aspect of longer-living family life: Foxconn, the Asian electronics giant, is manufacturing for the Japanese market a creepy mechanized robot entitled Pepper, intended to provide company for the home-alone elderly.
Social relationships could also come under pressure: marriage was intended for life, but with life expectancy doubling and the rate of divorce increasing, how will this affect the family tree? If the average person lives to be a hundred years old, they could have several different families and the whole family structure as we know it could become totally obsolete.
In the Justice system, the ages and terms of office for Supreme Court judges are also rising. The nine justices on the first Court sat an average of nine years; the last nine to depart, an average of 27 years. John Paul Stevens, the most recent to retire, was a justice for 35 years. In politics, due to rising life expectancy and the mounting power of incumbency, both houses of Congress are the oldest they’ve ever been: the average senator is 62 years old; the average representative, 57. This development has its positive and negative aspects:
“There’s already a tremendous advantage to incumbency,” experienced political operative Karl Rove commented. “As people live longer, incumbents will become more entrenched. Strom Thurmond might not be unusual anymore. Many from both parties could cling to power too long, freezing out fresh thinking. It won’t be good for democracy.”
A longer living population is also a rapidly expanding population, and feeding this growing number human beings is an increasing concern. There will be more of an impact on the environment and global warming as more food needs to be produced, and pollution will be increased by the development of extra housing, more heating, and the extra vehicles that will be required. Crime rates might rise and housing may become an issue, with overcrowding increasing the incidence of disease and socio-economic deprivation.
Ultimately, the increase in human life expectancy is not a natural phenomenon, and is therefore not rewarded by evolutionary advances seen in our ancestors. Natural selection and the "survival of the fittest" no longer applies, and therefore we are solely responsible for the maintenance and support of the new social subset we have inadvertently created: the "New Agers."
Felipe Sierra, a researcher at the National Institute on Aging, says, “Evolution doesn’t care about you past your reproductive age. It doesn’t want you either to live longer or to die, it just doesn’t care. From the standpoint of natural selection, an animal that has finished reproducing and performed the initial stage of raising young might as well be eaten by something, since any favorable genetic quality that expresses later in life cannot be passed along.”
Evolution has previously selected for strength, intelligence, reflexes, sexual appeal; all of these attributes were designed to promote the continuation of the species. Longevity has never been a factor and so the body is not programmed to prepare for old age. For example, when growing and forming, the young body requires calcium, so nature selected for the ability to efficiently metabolize this element, but as we age, excess calcium causes stiffening of the arteries. Testosterone is essential to a youthful man, but in an aging man, it can be a factor in prostate cancer. Evolution has left us physically unprepared for these eventualities, though to some degree, advanced medical and nutritional awareness can now compensate for these physical limitations.
So, for those of us who do now make it to our one hundredth birthday, it may not be the celebratory event that it once was if all we can look forward to is a future of supporting our massively extended families – or having them support us – or eking out our dwindling savings in overcrowded home, whilst watching an elderly Supreme Court Judge metering out justice to an increasing criminal population. If our families are absent, then maybe our robot companion will help us make the best of life on an uncertain planet that is struggling to produce the resources we need to survive.
Our journey into the unknown may now begin before our demise, as the uncertainty of a future that is unlike any that has gone before us, now stretches before us. Felipe Sierra, the researcher at the National Institute on Aging, sums it up thus: “The human ethical belief that death should be postponed as long as possible does not exist in nature—from which we are now, in any case, diverging.”