Living longer

I’ve been invited to give a talk on the topic of challenges posed by an ageing population. This issue has been around ever since I can remember and, in a literal sense, it’s one I am pretty concerned about. Throughout my life I have, like the rest of the population, been aging at a rate of one year per year, and this poses plenty of challenges. On the other hand, as someone said recently, getting older may have its unpleasant aspects but it’s a lot better than the alternative.

Of course, when pundits talk about an ageing population, they do not mean that we are individually getting older but that we are not dying as soon as we used to. The result of this (and subject to demographic fluctuations) is that the average age of the population is increasing.

While I was a little snarky in my opening para, this is, in fact the correct way to think about things. We are, mostly, living longer and this creates a bunch of individual and social opportunities, choices and challenges. The two big ones are:

* How should the extra years of life be allocated between additional education, additional years of work (including household work most notably childraising) and additional years of retirement?

* What are the implications for our personal health and for the health care system.

I’ve looked at the first of these questions on quite a few occasions and concluded that the problems, if any, relate to the way the labour market works (or rather fails to work) for older worker

On the second, the operating assumption in much of the discussion seems to be that people will live longer, but that their health, at any given age, will be much the same as that of previous cohorts. This is obviously nonsensical. The reason the previous cohorts died earlier (on average) is that their health was worse. If people live longer, this will mostly mean more years of healthy life.

One possible exception I’ve been concerned about is dementia caused by Alzheimer’s and related diseases. Perhaps that’s inevitable deterioration rather than a product of ill health. But the news here is good. Age-specific rates of Alzheimers have been declining for the past 25 years as general health improves.

One remaining issue is that people with severe dementia are surviving longer than they used to, as a result of improved care, and this is socially costly. However, this is a once-off shift that has already happened, so the extra cost has been incurred already. Increases in lifespans associated with improvements in general health, including reductions in the age-specific frequency of dementia should not have any additional cost.

This is, in fact, an illustration of a more general point. The increase in health care expenditure we observe is the result of the development of new, and costly treatments. Unsurprisingly people want these treatments and are willing to pay for them, either privately or through the public health system. To regard this as a problem is like complaining about the availability of flat-screen TVs on the basis that buying them will increase our entertainment costs.

60 thoughts on “Living longer

  1. @Apocalypse

    In countries with ageing populations, there aren’t many under 18s, because oldies don’t breed. Median voter age will be more than median population age, but not by all that much.

  2. @derrida derider

    Well of course. Who wouldn’t prefer ‘Light My Fire’ to ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ and, say, ‘Roadhouse Blues’ to maybe ‘All Along the Watchtower’.

    But perhaps it’s because you were a mere tyke of about 10 or so when ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ was released, but a freshly post-pubescent teen when ‘Light My Fire’ came out.

  3. @Tim Macknay

    Yes but Theil did catch that particular meme from the Simpsons, of course.

    And whatever happened to:

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

  4. GrueBleen :
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Raves typically peak just before the coming of the light, it’s only the oldies who struggle to stay up after sunset 🙂 And to quote the BBC’s number one Christmas song for 2009 by Rage Against The … Machine: “f** you I won’t do what you tell me

    Although my taste is more getting up before dawn to hear Salmonella Dub play their final set of the night just as the sun comes up over Canaan Downs. Hearing “Platetechtonics” echoing down the valley at dawn is a magical way to welcome the new year. I miss the old country sometimes, the bush here is just not the same.

  5. @Moz of Yarramulla

    You mean the “young country” don’t you? The Shaky Isles where the next time Taupo caldera blows they slide under the sea and send OZ a mega-tsunami which rolls all the way to Uluru?! 😉

  6. @Moz of Yarramulla

    Heh, well I’ll leave Ikono to his interjections and just say that nostalgia is always with the dear departed.

    But surely Canaan Downs, like the rest of the Long White Cloud, is blessed with a vigorous possum population now ? And therefor the NZ bush is just like the Aussie bush ? Perhaps you should take on kangaroos and wallabies next.

  7. One solution to the issue of health costs during retirement is to have a Medicare Levy
    on superannuation yearly payments. Whilst electric fencing the aged pension payments from any levies is essential, the same is not true for all superannuation yearly pay outs.
    With millionaire superannuation recipients using tax dodgers to avoid income tax elsewhere, a specific health care levy would be appropriate. Of course, if such millionaires want to pay for top cover private health insurance that would be a bonus to an already overcrowded aged health care system.
    I certainly do no agree with a certain Liberal politician who seems to think that rich people, with over a million dollars in their superannuation fund, should get tax benefits. But fairness demands that anyone who can afford to pay the Medicare levy do so for as long as they are able to cope financially.

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