life expectancy

As Life Expectancy Rises, So Do Issues That Challenge It

Danger is lurking in our food, loitering on doorsteps, clogging the atmosphere and our arteries. But in spite of all this, life expectancy has continued to grow. Is a shift coming?

There’s all sorts of things that, according to scientists, are likely to shave years off your life. Sit too long? Drink a large cola? Perpetually single? There go years of your life, like balloons disappearing into the ether; snuffed out by neglect, like carnival goldfish flushed down the toilet.

But there’s a contradictory narrative going on that underscores the threat of every aspect knocking down your candle count. And that’s one simple fact: life expectancy is still growing, with each generation living longer than the last.

Specifically, life expectancy has raised by four months since 1970, and doubled in the last century and a half.

New solutions vs new threats

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”ieUy9kmEStfJWdv57HPEDSWsXhELXS5I”]Why are people living longer? We mostly have medical advancements to thank, which have lowered infant mortality and all but eliminated some of the deadliest diseases. Lower poverty levels, cleaner water, and expanded access to education have also helped expand general longevity.

Science, medicine, and public health measures have so far generated new and better solutions issues previously holding humanity back. According to the UN, life expectancy will continue to climb from today’s mid-70s  to 100 by the 22nd century.

Peachy as such predictions may be, new problems face future generations that could slow the trend, if not reverse it. Or, maybe not. These include:

Obesity: Obesity rates are rising, and bringing with them frightening cardiovascular conditions. Even so, in a phenomenon scientists are calling the Obesity Paradox, overweight and obese people are at less risk of dying of disease today than they were years ago, and in many cases, outlive normal-weight and underweight counterparts with the same conditions. This suggests that even as people get fatter, medical treatment is over-adapting to prevent the associated illnesses.

Climate Change: Temperature variability has been tied to lower life expectancy — but only in the elderly and chronically ill. Serious climate-related disasters could lower life expectancy, but short of radical events, this is unlikely to be a significant hindrance — especially since people live longer in warm weather than in cold.

Social isolation: It’s been shown that longevity is associated with robust social interaction, which has been on the decline due to changing family structures, less community and religious participation, and rise of electronic communication.

Wealth gaps: Above all, longevity is associated with prosperity and education. More access to education means longer lives for all, but if gaps in wealth and rising costs prevent lower-income families from good educations, the rich (which account for less people) will outlive the poor tremendously, lowering average expectancy.

What’s next?

Potential issues aside, it seems that short of an apocalyptic event (extreme weather, bio-weapons, pandemic, nuclear war) or unforeseen bottleneck, life expectancy will continue to steadily rise. It’s risen through world wars and pandemics with nary a dip, though experts expect we could hit a wall around 100.

This natural progression or limit, however, may also be heightened by new medicine and technology, harnessed by various companies and startups designed to put off death as long as possible.

The prospect is both exciting and terrifying. The latter because longer lives means a larger population, a larger population means older people outnumbering the younger, which could mean social security and retirement crises along with power and political imbalance.

But, maybe the world’s solutions will catch up with these unpleasant consequences as well. Only time — and potentially quite a lot of  it — will tell for certain.

Jennifer Markert