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.
"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. "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.
"Boomer women are about the heaviest smoking cohort in U.S. history and they are suffering big time," says Samuel Preston, a professor of sociology and demography at the University of Pennsylvania. Like many of his colleagues, Preston believes that a declining rate of smoking will eventually extend women's life expectancy; however, he isn't projecting that until today's young women turn 40 in 2020. By 2040, obesity will reduce life expectancy by 0.733 percent for men, and 0.677 percent for women, according to Preston. Those are trends that he believes will be offset by other gains as people stop smoking.On the other hand, the impact on Medicare, which is in the political limelight right now, is not so clear:
"Rich people live significantly longer than poor people do," says John Bailey Jones, an associate professor of economics at the University of Albany, State University of New York. In the United States, the wealthy live nearly five years longer on average than do the most destitute, according to Denney's research.
"The net effect (of slower longevity improvements) might not be large," agrees Ronald Lee, director of University of California, Berkeley's Center for the Demography and Economics of Aging. "There will be fewer elderly people to provide health care for... (but) those elderly people who are alive will be less healthy and have higher healthcare needs."The lesson seems to be that if you are baby boomer, you might want to think about taking better care of yourself.