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Enjoying Every Sandwich: Life Expectancy and Growth

May 4, 2012 by Ike Brannon

Football great Junior Seau killed himself this week at the age of 43, a tragedy for his friends, family, and many fans. In the wake of other tragic suicides involving NFL players, not a few people are suspecting that this suicide was brought on by some sort of brain damage resulting from Seau’s NFL career. Regardless of the cause, Seau’s death is a sad event, but suicides — or other deaths — among 40-something males are not necessarily unusual. Mortality rates for males in their 30s and 40s have been virtually unchanged over the past three decades. The sad fact of the matter is that the things that kill men in my cohort — accidents, depression and suicide, substance abuse, and acute illnesses such as pancreatic cancer — remain stubbornly high. Is this another example of how little we are getting for our massive health-care expenditures? Not at all. Life expectancy is increasing smartly, which contributes to our economic growth, but the gains are occurring in the later years of life. The Centers for Disease Control reports that from 2000 to 2007, life expectancy for 65-year-olds went up by an entire year. It increased by just five months in the entire 1990s. The areas where we’ve seen seismic changes in health care — better acute care for heart attacks, the ubiquity of statins to control cholesterol, and impressive gains in most cancer treatments, to name just a few — largely benefit those who reach their 60s. When Tim Russert died four years ago of a heart attack at the age of 58, people reacted not just with sadness but with outrage that someone so young would die of a heart attack. In the 1970s men in their 50s dropped dead all the time. This change, when examined from the perspective of time, is truly amazing, and it’s something we need to remember the next time someone insists our health-care investments have produced meager returns or that our standard of living has remained stagnant in the last few decades. To suggest that there is a downside to this sharp increase in longevity would be nothing short of churlish, but it does create financial pressures of which we should be aware. Most important, such gains threaten to push the costs of Social Security and Medicare even higher than they currently are. Although the New York Times noted earlier this week that health-care cost increases were surprisingly low the last few years, longevity gains threaten to wipe out any incipient budget relief. The other financial side-effect of unexpected longevity gains is the possible impact on the life-insurance industry. The industry’s two main products — pure life insurance and annuities — ought to act as a natural hedge to one another. Evenly distributed gains in longevity make life insurance more profitable but annuities less profitable, since they typically provide a benefit until the owner dies. However, if longevity gains are bunched near the end of life and middle-aged males keep dying apace, then the companies lose money on both ends. An economist for a European insurance company told me a few years back that he had calculated that a three-year increase in longevity at age 65 in the next three decades combined with a static pre-60 death rate would create a dire situation for his company and most of their competitors. The fact that we are on pace to achieve that gain much sooner than 30 years from now means we must hope that the insurance sector can catch up faster than the public sector. Otherwise it might become the government’s problem (and the taxpayers’) as well. The punch line — besides that we should enjoy every sandwich — is that while insurance companies and policymakers may not be cognizant of the longevity gains for those who reach senior status, the rest of us seem to be. Catherine Rampell reported this week in the New York Times that our expected retirement age has risen seven years in the past decade, from age 60 to 67, a necessary development that should manifest itself in a more active and productive class of senior citizens. This would be a boon for economic growth. While Rampell attributes the bulk of it to stagnating 401k returns, at least some of this is due to the growing awareness that people who reach their 60s can have a lot more living to do, so they’re rationally planning on working more to make sure enough is set aside for their remaining golden years. Let’s hope the government and our insurance companies plan accordingly.


Author

Ike Brannon
Ike Brannon

Ike Brannon served as an Economic Growth Fellow of the George W. Bush Institute from 2012 to 2015. He has a Ph.D. in economics from Indiana University and a B.A. in math, Spanish, and economics from Augustana College. View his full bio

Full Bio