The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Don’t forget these pivotal pieces on life expectancy


Laura L. Carstensen asserted that “tension surrounding aging is due largely to the speed with which life expectancy increased” [“We need a major redesign of life,” Sunday Opinion, Dec. 1]. This conclusion is based on a faulty understanding of life expectancy, which is a conditional probability of surviving to a given age. She is right that life expectancy at birth increased about 30 years since the early 20th century, but she is wrong about the source. Most of those gains came from improvements in infant and child mortality, because of improved nutrition, childhood immunization, economic development, sanitation, etc. Improvement in mortality at older ages has been more modest. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports only a five-year gain in life expectancy at age 65 in the past 50 years.

Our society is changing because of an aging population, but this is caused far more by a higher proportion of old people than by individuals living to be older. Declining fertility is the driving force that has resulted in a larger proportion of old people relative to young ones. This is what is creating the tension, along with concomitant changes in family life, labor participation and other factors.

Ann Riley, Baltimore

Kudos to Laura L. Carstensen and the Stanford Center on Longevity for its redesign-of-life project. It’s a critical first step in enabling our embattled species to survive and thrive as science continues to extend life.

This vital intellectual exercise appears to miss a key, and perhaps pivotal, piece. How we live, the shifts of resources and emphasis Ms. Carstensen suggests require rethinking how we use time — and we use time one day at a time. The makeup of that daily allocation varies widely in regions of the country and even more so across the globe. Neighbors living on the East and West coasts, consumed by their work and sometimes the need to work more than one job, have little time for their families or other neighbors. Stanford would do well to consider the consequences of communities so frayed by collapsing social networks that mutually supportive relationships — people coming together to give their time and care to one another in dynamic networks — become stunted or nonexistent. 

My advice: Consider how the pieces of time fit together in the grand design that will rescue us from our current runaway course.

Robert E. Honig, Potomac

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