As the average life expectancy keeps growing worldwide, health care plans and pension funds are becoming increasingly overwhelmed by the demands from aging generations. According to a new study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the costs of caring for the elderly will continue to rise at unsustainable rates.
The study report, which was published in the IMF’s “World Economic Outlook,” concludes that the increasing longevity of the world population will likely put economies at risk globally. “If everyone in 2050 lived just three years longer than now expected, in line with the average underestimation of longevity in the past, society would need extra resources equal to one to two percent of GDP per year,” it says in the study. These estimates only concern pensions, not health care costs, which are also bound to rise with longer life spans.
An Aging Population Burdens Pensions and Health Care
In the United States, the average life expectancy has risen by eight years over the past four decades and is projected to increase an additional four years by 2050 – an average of five weeks per year.
It is estimated that by mid-century many countries will have almost as many retired people (age 65 and older) as they have active workers. Based on its findings, the IMF urges governments to take more preparatory steps by raising the retirement age and increasing taxes for the funding of public pension plans while lowering benefits, all of which are likely to be unpopular and politically difficult to implement.
What complicates the situation is that people are not just living longer, which in itself could be considered a blessing. The problem is that adding more years does not necessarily result in better quality of life. “We have been very successful in increasing the length of life, says Dr. Eileen M. Crimmins, a professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California (USC). “But people live longer not because they are getting less sick but because they survive longer with disease.”
In fact, over the past few decades, we have seen a dramatic increase in obesity and many related health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer. As debilitating as some of these illnesses can be, advances in modern medical technology allow patients to continue living for many more years, albeit at limited capacity and at high costs. While we are lucky to be alive at a time when we can benefit from these achievements, we also have to find ways to pay for treating these diseases and accommodate disabilities, says Crimmins.
Some experts warn that spending more money on health care alone does not make us healthier. As treating chronic illnesses becomes more expensive for individuals as well as for society as a whole, it is crucial that people maintain good health as much and for as long as possible through healthy lifestyle choices.
While there is no way to stop the clock or reverse the aging process, modern medicine should help people live longer, stay active and minimize the ravages of age-related diseases and inevitable decline. But the amount of time people spend sick and suffering a poor quality of life should be compressed as much as possible, sparing society the costs of maintaining so many chronically ill old people, writes Dr. Andrew Weil, best-selling author in his book, “Healthy Aging.”
In short, we have to think of our natural aging process more in terms of give and take. Living well – and thereby living longer – includes living responsibly. Pro-active, preventive health care is the most affordable of all. But it requires making serious efforts on our own behalf every day for as long as we can.
“The trouble with health care in America is that people want to believe that there is always a fix,” says Dr. Muriel Gillick, a geriatrics expert at Harvard Medical School. She believes that, as we grow older, we rely too much on interventions, even toward the end of life, which may give us a little more time but often causes unnecessary suffering. We would be better off by focusing more on the quality of the life we have left and by maintaining it to the best of our abilities – and then accept nature taking its course, which it ultimately will, no matter what we throw in its way.