Do We Really Want to Live to 100?

Increased longevity places more demands on families, health services, finances and housing.

If you could live to be 100, would you want to?

Thanks to advances in medicine, public health, lifestyle, nutrition, and other factors, the average U.S. life expectancy has increased dramatically over the past century. In 1900, most people lived until about age 47. Today, it’s 78.6. The “oldest-old”—those 85 and older—are the fastest growing age group. By 2050, when the last of the baby boomers hits this milestone, some 19 million people will be over 85.

More people are also reaching the century mark than ever before. The number of Americans who live to be 100 and over increased 43.6 percent, from 50,281 in 2000 to 86,248 in 2017. The number of centenarians will balloon to 600,000 by 2060, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet increased longevity is further straining an already stressed system, from health care to finances to housing.

Living to 100 is nice, but only under the right conditions, according to longevity researcher S. Jay Olshansky, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “Life extension without health extension would be harmful,” he said. He suggested that aging researchers shift gears from trying to just live longer to trying to live healthier, because “how you live has a very powerful influence on health span.” This “compression of morbidity” will mean fewer years with serious disease, and it occurs closer to the end of life.

Unless those additional years of life are healthy, it will be a disaster, Olshansky explained. We have been able to extend lifespan through advances in treating conditions like heart disease and cancer. However, that could lead to more people developing Alzheimer’s disease or other serious chronic conditions. Modern medicine has been going down this path of extending life without considering the broader consequences, he explained in a recent JAMA article.

As more people live longer with chronic conditions, the demand on services and the need for care is increasing significantly, said Robyn Stone, senior vice president for research at LeadingAge. Stone is concerned that economic, workplace, and long-term care policies are woefully unprepared to support extended longevity. “Many people have not saved enough to live into their 90s,” she said. “That impacts quality of life and economic security.”

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