Stagnation of life expectancy raises many questions

Although quality of life is far more important, the current stagnation of life expectancy in the Western World makes many scientists nervous. Of course it’s interesting to know why, after an upsurge of over 100 years, the last couple of years in the Western World the rise of life expectancy came to a halt. However, arguments to explain this stagnation range from climate change to the financial and economic crisis.

Premature conclusion

Even when it’s way too soon to speculate what the real causes are, this week in the UK a conference will be held to do just that. At the center stage of the discussion will be the premature conclusion that austerity measures are to be blamed.

Before I get into this conclusion it is good to look at some other arguments that might explain the stagnation of life expectancy in the Western World. Moreover, if we want to age with care, we might as well have some precise insights in what care investments will improve life expectancy.

Life expectancy has its limits

One of the arguments is that the average life expectancy has reached its limits. Despite the so-called Blue Zones average life expectancy has never and nowhere been much more than 80-85 years. This triggers the question whether small declines or rises in life expectancy can be attributed in a plausible way to any causes.

Extreme weather conditions due to climate change?

Climate change is blamed to have an impact because of the increase in extreme weather conditions. Harsh winters bring more flu and hot summers prematurely end more lives of the elderly. This is a weak argument because the current climate change has no such effects on such a short notice.

Stagnation in life expectancy due to pollution?

More and more people live in cities. This has a cumulative detrimental effect on living conditions, because cities are breeding grounds for communicable diseases and stress (due to incessant amounts of noise and the constant crossing of private boundaries). Moreover, cities purport all kinds of temptations that negatively affect health and levels of wellbeing (abundance of fast food, alcoholic beverages, drugs).
All the more, the enormous amounts of traffic produce unhealthy particulate matter and exhaust fumes that contribute to the already overloaded air. Although the effects of all this might take a while, now is perhaps the time?

Concurring stagnation in education and income levels?

Perhaps the rise in life expectancy halted because of a standstill in supporting conditions such as income and education levels. Statisticians always relate life expectancy to education and income levels. The higher the education and income, the higher the life expectancy.
Of course this is not an answer to the cause-and-effect question. Besides the stagnation of the education and income levels still need to be explained.

More women in the labor force?

1. Higher stress levels

Despite the financial and economic crisis, anyway in Europe, more and more women acceded the labor force during the last couple of decades. This has several significant consequences. For many people work is a source of stress and stress has a major negative impact on people’s health. Combined with the rise in alcohol and fast food use this is not good news.

2. Low level of emancipation

But the rise of women in the labor force has some other less expected effects. Even in these so-called emancipated times, women still mostly do the shopping and most of them certainly prepare the food. These past years there’s hardly been a rise in the hours men spent on household chores, as a consequence the household hours of women did not decline. This certainly will have contributed to their stress levels.

3. Unhealthy eating habits

If women participate more in the labor force they have less time at their hands for shopping and cooking and rely more on prepared supermarket foods. These do not tend to be too good for your health. Moreover, supermarkets specifically appear to market unhealthy foods.

4. Less informal care

Than the final argument for the decline in life expectancy related to the rise of women in the labor force. If women spend more time at work, they have less time to take care of the sick and elderly. A task that is mainly and traditionally reserved for women. And again, the men did not step into the void left behind by their working female partners. This of course is not good news for the elderly that are depraved of the precious time of their children.

Stagnation of life expectancy caused by austerity measures?

Since the financial and economic crisis of 2007 austerity measures negatively affected public social and medical services. This is a very strong argument for the stagnation of life expectancy because people that are socially and economically less well off tend to profit relatively heavy from public services.

But this would mean that the decline in life expectancy should merely occur within this cohort of the population. Although this might very well be the case, recent research shows that in the cohort of people with less education and less income as on average, there are a lot of people that age successful.

To age successful

Recently a study based on the analysis of long term data from the UK and The Netherlands revealed some new insights on why people with on average less education and less income age successful:

  • Self-regulation (in control);
  • Social support (e.g. a partner);
  • Lifestyle (physical activity and a healthy weight) and the absence of chronic diseases;
  • Social security arrangements.

Successful aging is within everybody’s grasp

If the stagnation of life expectancy mainly occurred in this specific socioeconomic group, it would be plausibel to assume that the austerity measures in the public domain have contributed to the stagnation of life expectancy. Anyhow, the good news is that no matter what socioeconomic group you’re from, successful aging is within everybody’s grasp.

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