Aging in America in the Twenty-First Century

Demographic Forecasts from the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society

Published In: The Milbank Quarterly, v. 87, no. 4, Dec. 2009, p. 842-862

Posted on RAND.org on January 01, 2009

by S. Jay Olshansky, Dana P. Goldman, Yuhui Zheng, John W. Rowe

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CONTEXT: The aging of the baby boom generation, the extension of life, and progressive increases in disability-free life expectancy have generated a dramatic demographic transition in the United States. Official government forecasts may, however, have inadvertently underestimated life expectancy, which would have major policy implications, since small differences in forecasts of life expectancy produce very large differences in the number of people surviving to an older age. This article presents a new set of population and life expectancy forecasts for the United States, focusing on transitions that will take place by midcentury. METHODS: Forecasts were made with a cohort-components methodology, based on the premise that the risk of death will be influenced in the coming decades by accelerated advances in biomedical technology that either delay the onset and age progression of major fatal diseases or that slow the aging process itself. FINDINGS: Results indicate that the current forecasts of the U.S. Social Security Administration and U.S. Census Bureau may underestimate the rise in life expectancy at birth for men and women combined, by 2050, from 3.1 to 7.9 years. CONCLUSIONS: The cumulative outlays for Medicare and Social Security could be higher by $3.2 to $8.3 trillion relative to current government forecasts. This article discusses the implications of these results regarding the benefits and costs of an aging society and the prospect that health disparities could attenuate some of these changes.

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