Insight: What if baby boomers don't live forever?
File photo of elderly couples viewing the ocean and waves along the beach in La Jolla (Mike Blake, Reuters)
Most retirement plans and federal budget projections assume baby boomers -- those Americans born between 1946 and 1964 -- will live significantly longer than their parents have. That is a logical assumption, given healthcare improvements, new drugs and the long 20th century experience of ever-rising life expectancies.
But there is a counter argument: boomers, beset by factors like elevated rates of obesity, cancer and suicide, could reverse or at least slow the increase in human life spans. A change in trend could have a bearing on everything from Social Security trust fund balances to the number of nursing homes and golf courses supported in the future.
"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.
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.
To be sure, the trajectory of American lifespans is stirring great debate among epidemiologists, actuaries and other experts. Most say mortality will continue to decline and people will live longer. But some experts believe that trend will slow.
"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.
"There is a whole suite of problems we are now seeing in the baby boom generation that we didn't see in their parents when they were that age," Olshansky said, citing greater frailty, increased risk for cardiovascular disease and declining cognitive function.
Baby boomers, now between 48 and 67 years old, have already shown a greater propensity to suicide than previous generations, according to a data analysis from researchers at Rutgers University and Emory University.
Male boomers had abnormally high suicide rates in their teen and early 20s, peaking for many boomers at 26 suicides per 100,000 lives at an age when the rate among next older generations were below 20 suicides per 100,000 lives, data showed. Patterns were similar for women, though their rates are lower, Emory epidemiologist Ellen Idler said.
Even more disturbing to Idler is the fact that suicide rates for baby boomers rose significantly when they were in their 40s, a time when those rates typically plateau or head down. "It's a troubling scenario all around." And suicide is not insignificant: Idler says it causes roughly as many deaths in any given year as breast cancer. In 2009, there were 11.8 suicide deaths and 12.5 breast cancer deaths per 100,000 lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
THE BIG 'C'
Then there's cancer. The post-war baby boom generation does have higher rates of cancer at younger ages than the previous generation, the National Cancer Institute reported.
In 2009, people 45 to 59 years old saw roughly 570 cases of cancer per 100,000 people. That's up 7 percent from the 533 cases per 100,000 who were in that same age range in 1985.
Some of that increase may be due to better detection, which - along with new treatments - has resulted in fewer cancer deaths for boomers than for their parents generation. Yet epidemiologists also see baby boomer women falling prey to lung, skin and other cancers.
"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.