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When does “old age” begin and should it matter?

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Written by Diane Archer

For decades, we have used 65 as the age at which government health and retirement benefits kick in and, for that reason, as a proxy for old age. Now, recent research suggests that old age does not begin until later–at least for some.  And, some policymakers argue that 65 is too early an eligibility age for Medicare and Social Security.

Population experts at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis say that people today are aging more slowly as they live longer.  They look at age not as the number of years lived but relative to the amount of time people have left to live.  In their view, old age begins when people have 15 or fewer years left to live.

From that perspective, one could argue that the population is aging more slowly. At 65, overall, people are in better health and more independent than they were 50 years ago.  But, the average life expectancy in the United States is still only 78.8 years, making 65 an appropriate marker for the beginning of old age for the typical American.

Of note, the average life expectancy does not reflect the tremendous chasm in life expectancy between the wealthy and the poor. While I could not find any good data in the U.S., the London Health Observatory found a 25 year difference in London.  The affect of income on life expectancy is clear.

Also, the average life expectancy (77 years) was 10 years longer than the average healthy life expectancy (67 years) in the Americas in 2013, according to the World Health Organization. Healthy life expectancy reflects life in less than full health as a result of disease or disability.

So, what should this mean for retirement benefits? The fairest way to address these disparities in life expectancy is through our federal tax system, not by penalizing people with lower incomes whose life expectancy has not increased in a meaningful way. Raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, those among us who are expected to live the longest overall. And, lift the cap on Social Security contributions so that the wealthy pay their fair share.

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3 Comments

  • I know far too many people who can not earn a meaningful wage even before age 60, yet they are forced to work because they are not disabled enough to qualify for any early benefits. Those who want to raise the full retirement age to 70 seem to be blind to those who MUST retire before then, as they even want to eliminate the early retirement with reduced benefits.

  • Unfortunately employers and often our bodies and minds are not part of that “some believe 80 is the new 60” BS. Even the counselor at the Employment Development Dept. told me good luck finding a job after 50 unless you have some specific skill in demand in the job market. This idea is a formula for a tragic mistake that will seriously harm millions of people.

  • As a nurse my body won’t last until 70. I’ve already had back surgery and two stress fractures to my left knee.

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