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First You Write a Sentence. Tomorrow has a way of coming. Suppose the escalator slows, and conservative assumptions about life expectancy prevail. The number of Americans 65 or older, 43 million today, could reach million in —that would be like adding three more Floridas, inhabited entirely by seniors. These disconcerting numbers flow from the leading analyst who thinks that the life-span increase is slowing down. Now the Congressional Budget Office says the year of reckoning may come as soon as Many private pension plans are underfunded, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which on paper appears to insure them, is an accident looking for a place to happen.
Twice in the past three years, Congress has voted to allow corporations to delay contributions to pension plans. This causes them to pay more taxes in the present year, giving Congress more to spend, while amplifying problems down the road. Medicare spending is rising faster than Social Security spending, and is harder to predict. Projections show the main component of Medicare, its hospital fund, failing by The Congressional Budget Office estimates that over the next decade, all federal spending growth will come from entitlements—mainly Social Security and Medicare—and from interest on the national debt.
Infrastructure, education, and research lead to economic growth; entitlement subsidies merely allow the nation to tread water. If health span can be improved, the costs of aging-related disability may be manageable. Not that long ago, vast sums were spent on iron lungs and sanitariums for treatment of polio: preventing the disease has proved much less expensive than treating it.
If chronic ailments related to aging can be prevented or significantly delayed, big-ticket line items in Medicare might not go off the rails. But if health span does not improve, longer life could make disability in aging an economic crisis. Many disabilities associated with advanced years cannot be addressed with pharmaceuticals or high-tech procedures; caregivers are required. Providing personal care for an aged invalid is a task few wish to undertake. As longevity increases, so too does the number of living grandparents. At the same time, traditional family trees are being replaced with diagrams that resemble maps of the London Underground.
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Will children of blended families feel the same obligation to care for aging stepparents as they feel for biological parents? Just the entry of the phrase birth parent into the national lexicon suggests the magnitude of the change. With Japan at the leading edge of lengthening life expectancy, its interest in robotics can be eerie.
Foxconn, the Asian electronics giant, is manufacturing for the Japanese market a creepy mechanized thing named Pepper that is intended to provide company for the elderly. More-sophisticated devices may be in store. Campaign-finance laws appear to promote reform, but in fact have been rigged to discourage challengers. A graying Congress would be expected to be concerned foremost with protection of the status quo.
Government may grow sclerotic at the very time the aging of the populace demands new ideas. Strom Thurmond might not be unusual anymore. Many from both parties could cling to power too long, freezing out fresh thinking. Now think of the Supreme Court as life expectancy increases.
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. If Clarence Thomas lives to the actuarial life expectancy of a male his current age, he could be a Supreme Court justice for 40 years.
The Framers would be aghast at the idea of a small cadre of unelected potentates lording it over the body politic for decades.
DNA : James Watson :
When the Constitution was written, no one could have anticipated how much life span would increase, nor how much power the Supreme Court would accrue. If democracy is to remain vibrant as society ages, campaign laws must change to help challengers stand a chance versus incumbents, and the Constitution must be amended to impose a term limit on the Supreme Court, so confirmation as a justice stops being a lifetime appointment to royalty. In , the typical American who reached age 65 would ultimately spend about 17 percent of his or her life retired. Now the figure is 22 percent, and still rising.
Yet Social Security remains structured as if longevity were stuck in a previous century. The early-retirement option, added by Congress in —start drawing at age 62, though with lower benefits—is appealing if life is short, but backfires as life span extends.
People who opt for early Social Security may reach their 80s having burned through savings, and face years of living on a small amount rather than the full benefit they might have received. Polls show that Americans consistently underestimate how long they will live—a convenient assumption that justifies retiring early and spending now, while causing dependency over the long run.
Perhaps 99 percent of members of Congress would agree in private that retirement economics must change; none will touch this third rail. But the Congressional Budget Office recently concluded that even this soak-the-rich option is insufficient to prevent insolvency for Social Security. At least one other change, such as later retirement or revised cost-of-living formulas, is required.
A fair guess is that the government will do nothing about Social Security reform until a crisis strikes—and then make panicked, ill-considered moves that foresight might have avoided. Beyond that, most individuals will likely need to take a new view of what retirement should be: not a toggle switch—no work at all, after years of full-time labor—but a continuum on which a person gradually downshifts to half-time, then to working now and then. Many employers are required to continue offering health insurance to those who stay on the job past 65, even though they are eligible for Medicare.
Ending this requirement would make seniors more attractive to employers.
DNA : The Secret of Life, Fully Revised and Updated
Many people may find continuing to work but under the lower-stress circumstances of part-time employment to be preferable to a gold watch, then idleness. The retirement track could be more appealing than traditional retirement. A longer health span will be essential to making it possible. Understanding the evolutionary biology of aging might help the quest for improved health span. Each cell of the body contains DNA code for a fresh, healthy cell, yet that blueprint is not called on as we grow old.
Current thinking tends to hold that rather than trying to make older animals die, natural selection simply has no mechanism to reward longevity. 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.
A generation ago, theorists suspected that menopause was an evolutionary adaptation exclusive to the Homo genus—women stop expending energy to bear children so they can care longer for those already born, as mothers and grandmothers. Yet recent research has shown that animals including lions and baboons also go through menopause, which increasingly looks more like a malfunction of aging cells than a quality brought about by selection pressure. The key point is: if nothing that happens after a person reproduces bears on which genes flourish, then nature has never selected for qualities that extend longevity.
Evolution favors strength, intelligence, reflexes, sexual appeal; it does not favor keeping an organism running a long time. For example, a growing body needs calcium, so nature selected for the ability to metabolize this element. Testosterone is essential to a youthful man; in an aging man, it can be a factor in prostate cancer. Evolution never selected for a defense against that. Similar examples abound; the most important may be senescent cells.
Natural selection probably favors traits that reduce the risk of cancer, because cancer can strike the young before reproductive age is reached. If senescence could be slowed, men and women hardly would become immortal. Violence, accidents, and contagious disease still would kill. Even if freed of chronic conditions, eventually our bodies would fail. But it is not credulous futurism to suppose that drugs or even genetic therapy may alter the human body in ways that extend longevity.