Should Retired Americans Worry About a Decline in Life Expectancy?

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Baby boomers — people born between 1946 and 1964 — were once America’s largest generation. Boomers held that demographic status until 2019, when Millennials became the largest living generation.

By 2029, all baby boomers will have reached the traditional retirement age of 65. Many boomers have already retired. Many other have reached retirement age but continue to work. Whether to retire early, retire at 65, or avoid retirement for as long as possible is a personal choice that may be driven by health, assets, the job market, and how seniors want to spend their time.

The absence of a crystal ball is a barrier to making informed decisions about funding a post-retirement lifestyle. Nobody can predict the future. How long seniors will live and how health conditions will change with age are mysteries that lend themselves to speculation rather than certainty. A cautious retirement plan that will fund a comfortable lifestyle until a retiree enters her 90s might sacrifice the more affluent lifestyle she would have lived if she had known she would die at 75.

Retirees often base investment and spending decisions on the expectation that they will have an average lifespan plus the hope of a few extra years. Retirees might thus be alarmed by news reports that life expectancies in the United States are declining. Should they change their retirement plans based on the expectation of an earlier death? 

Fortunately, life expectancy statistics do not mean that older adults are likely to face an early death. How long any individual will live cannot be predicted by actuarial statistics.

Understanding Life Expectancy

Actuarial statistics provide data about populations, not individuals. Statistics cannot tell us how long individuals will live. While a doctor might be able to predict the life expectancy of a person who suffers from a terminal health condition, the lifespan of most individuals cannot be predicted with any certainty. 

Actuarial statistics can define the average lifespan of a person born in a given year, but some people will live a longer life while some will die prematurely. If you’re healthy at 65, you might live to be 105. You might also die in a traffic accident at 66.

In addition, life expectancy changes each day until we die. Although the thought is morbid, each day we live brings us a day closer to death. For that reason, statistical life expectancy declines over time. On the other hand, each day we live increases the length of our life. Since statistical life expectancy is never zero, people who survive well into their senior years have a much longer life expectancy than they had at birth.

Actuarial measures of life expectancy at birth take into account the historical percentage of children who die in infancy. Surviving infancy thus increases an individual’s statistical life expectancy. In addition, advances in medicine have generally caused life expectancy at birth to increase annually. Those same advances have increased statistical life expectancy at various ages. A person who is 65 in 2023 has a longer life expectancy than a person who was 65 in 2003 because medical advances are helping people live longer lives.

Actuarial life expenses are useful for insurance companies but provide little guidance to people who wonder how many more years they will live. Actuaries in 1955 calculated the life expectancy of a male born that year to be 66.7 years. However, when that male reached the age of 65 in 2020, his life expectancy was not 1.7 years. He didn’t “use up” 65 of his allocated 66.7-year lifespan. Rather, males at age 65 in 2020 were expected to live another 17 years. Life expectancy increased because the 65-year-old avoided the early death that reduces average life expectancies at birth and because people, on average, are living longer lives because of improved healthcare.

Decreases in Life Expectancy

Americans have come to expect life expectancy statistics to improve each year, simply because medical advances have prolonged lives while reducing the number of children who die in infancy. Deaths of older adults due to chronic lung disease, pneumonia, and Alzheimer’s disease have decreased over recent decades. 

It might therefore seem surprising that life expectancy declined in 2020 and fell again in 2021. Life expectancy across all races and both genders was about 76 in 2021, compared to 79 in 2019.

Life expectancy statistics around the world were affected by the pandemic. After vaccines for COVID-19 were distributed widely, life expectancy rebounded in other countries. Unfortunately, it has continued to decline in the United States.

Experts offer several explanations for the change. Obesity caused by a poor diet and lack of exercise is a contributing factor, as is the absence of universal healthcare. Poverty rates, high-risk teen pregnancies, gun violence, suicide, a rise [] in deadly car accidents, and the opioid epidemic also contribute to shorter average lifespans.

Taking Control of Life Expectancy

Fortunately, seniors may be able to control some of those factors. Life can be prolonged by exercise, a healthy diet, and keeping up to date with vaccinations and boosters. 

Taking advantage of Medicare benefits (and visiting a doctor for specific complaints) is another key to longevity. Medicare does not pay for annual physical examinations, although Medicare Part B does pay for a comprehensive examination in the first year after signing up for the program. It also pays for yearly wellness examinations that focus on preventive care. 

In the end, declining life expectancy statistics are largely caused by increasing death rates for younger people. Seniors who stay safe and take care of their bodies and minds have no reason to worry about fluctuations in life expectancy statistics.

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