The Life Expectancy Gap


Yesterday, the blogosphere took on aging. The catalyst was a Washington Post article “Buying a Longer Life,” by Michael Fletcher, a national economics correspondent who’s done the homework on life expectancy and Medicare. His piece ran on Sunday.

Fletcher looked at two neighboring Florida counties: St. John’s and Putnam.

Here’s what he saw:


What’s up with that?

Life expectancy in St. Johns County is more than three years higher for women and almost seven years higher for men than in Putnam County.

St John’s is a comfortable county where retirees do what the people in retirement ads do – play golf and tennis, jog along the shoreline, relax over dinner. Inland in working-class Putnam, 13.10% of those age 65 or over are under the poverty line, which is more than double the percentage in St. John’s County, and residents have access to half as many doctors.

Life expectancy in Putnam has barely risen since the end of WW2; for low-income white women, it’s fallen.

It’s a little-discussed fact that’s well known in gerontology circles: While life expectancy in the West has risen dramatically in the past 50 years, that rise represents a statistical average. For some groups of Americans, life expectancy has stagnated – and even fallen. What’s happening in St. John’s and Putnam is happening across the US; the life expectancy gap is growing as the well-to do live increasingly longer and the badly off lose ground.

Fletcher’s purpose in highlighting the gap is to question the proposed raising of the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare. The proposal is widely supported based on the idea that we’re all going to live longer.

Blogging for Mother Jones, Kevin Drum (“How Raising the Retirement Age Screws the Working Poor”) takes Fletcher’s point and runs with it:

“Working class and middle class workers haven’t seen much increase in their life expectancies over the past few decades. So if you raise the retirement age, you’re effectively shortening their retirements, an especially foul blow since they’re the ones with the shortest life spans to begin with.”

But retirement age isn’t the only question the WaPo article raises. In Slate, Matthew Yglesias asks, Why?

Why is the life expectancy gap growing? And why don’t we know?

“The growing health and life expectancy gap is in my view much more disturbing than the income inequality gap as such. It’s very important that we try to understand it better and in particular that we try to understand exactly what’s driving it and how it can be addressed.” -Matthew Yglesias

A lot of energy is going into longevity studies. But these don’t focus on why poorer Americans are dying so much younger. Of course, there are hypotheses: Less educated people are more likely to smoke; the worries that come with poverty cause unhealthy levels of stress; poorer people live in more polluted areas; healthier diets cost more; wealthier people have access to better care and can afford the meds they’re prescribed… But really, nobody knows.

Meanwhile, how about the eligibility age for Medicare?

Click here to read the Washington Post article – and all 4,248 comments!

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