Is a longer lifespan a good thing?

The idea in economics that 'more is better' may not hold true when it comes to aging.

Courtesy of Touchstone Television
Cast members from the popular television comedy series "The Golden Girls" are shown in a scene from the series in this undated publicity photograph. Is quantity of life more important than quality of life?

Susan Jacoby's new book Never Say Die is reviewed in the NY Times today. She does not believe in "wishful thinking". For Baby Boomers who hope that their best days are yet to come, she offers some cold water. To quote the review; "At 85 or 90, Jacoby writes, 'only a fool' can imagine the best years are yet to come."

Optimism versus rational expectations. The actuarial charts do not lie. Your life span is a random variable. Conditional on your age and your gender, you can look up the distribution of how many years of life you have left. Here is an example from calendar year 2006. So, I just learned that the typical man of my age will live for 33.11 years. This tells me nothing about the quality of these future years in terms of my health or the acuity of my "beautiful mind". Recognizing this fact, a rational person thinks through a series of choices ranging from work effort, savings, time with friends, locational choice to best meet one's needs and goals.

The interesting part of the review focuses on Jacoby writing about NYC as a "senior friendly" city as it is armed with elevators and other pieces of capital that can substitute for a senior's effort.

The review focuses on the quality of life of the aging but how do the increased counts of aging people affect the "young"'s quality of life? This crossed my mind as I flew to Washington DC last week. It was hard to get on and off of the airplane because some seniors were moving slow and having trouble moving their own luggage around. As there are more and more of such seniors, how much will society slow down? How much longer will public buses take to get to destinations as they slowly load and unload passengers? I am not trying to be politically incorrect. As an empiricist, I merely want to understand cross-demographic group effects. Public finance experts have focused on the impact of the Boomers on our budget deficit. I'm asking a question about their impact on our day to day life.

Jacoby's book appears to tackle the fundamental issue in economics that "more is better than less". She is pushing boomers to consider quality of life over quantity of life. "Yes, the brute facts are the brute facts, but “Never Say Die” is ultimately — as Jacoby acknowledges in an aside late in the book — about her own fear of poverty, dementia and dependence. For all her doubts about the rest of the population’s grasp of reality, this fear is an increasingly common one."

So, how do you keep the brain young and fresh without embracing sci-fi solutions such as the one from Star Trek episodes where Kirk's mind is deposited into a basketball? (remember that one?) It appears that the aging population has created an imperative for the brain researchers to figure this out.

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