A Disappointing Medical Fact

Posted by: Michael Mandel on January 12

*In 1900 a 50-year old American could expect to live another 21.3 years.

*In 1950 a 50-year old American could expect to live another 24.4 years

*In 2003 a 50-year old American could expect to live another 30.6 years

So someone like me (49 going on 50) has gained an extra 6 years of expected life since 1950. Optimistically, this is a 25% increase since 1950, or a 50% increase since 1900.

Pessimistically, though, we have spent hundreds of billions on treating cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses of the middle-aged…and we have only gained six years of expected additional life.*

To me that’s disappointing.


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Reader Comments


January 12, 2007 08:15 PM

In fact, there is little evidence that these increases in life expectancy have anything to do with medicine at all (http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2005/06/healthy_debate.html). We eat better and live less stressful lives today than we ever have. From the aggregate statistics, it is hard to find any evidence that medicine is responsible for the increases in life expectancy, it is more likely other factors like those listed above. However, I have to agree with Arnold Kling that this is a very complex issue and that disaggregated statistical studies have to be run.


January 12, 2007 10:04 PM

one has to wonder when the life expectancy will actually start to shrink.


January 15, 2007 01:14 AM

Disappointing? I don't think you think through these columns very well.
It's not a lack of investment in medical research and treatment that is killing Americans, it's their sedentary lifestyle and exorbitant consumption of unhealthy food, drink and cigarettes.

Brandon W

January 15, 2007 08:28 AM

The US medical system is "disease care", not health care. Many, many diseases have been on the rise for years; not declining as one would expect from alleged medical advances. All we've managed to do is come up with enough technology to counter-balance the "advances" in food production which are killing us because of drained nutrients and damaging artificial ingredients. This is a great example of why I've argued on here that GDP is a useless number and does nothing to demonstrate an increase in quality of life. We spend hundreds of billions on foods and we spend hundreds of billions on disease care; all of which are "added" to GDP. And what is the net benefit of this $1.6 trillion in GDP? ZERO.

M.T. Paige

January 15, 2007 05:15 PM

Sure there has been tons of money spent on managing illnesses. This has allowed millions of people to live much longer than they would have if such advances had not been made. For healthy people, how long do we really want to live? You expect time to keep getting added on to the end? Things sure are better than they were for settlers, they just got sick and died. At least we have a chance! Brandon W, I know you hate the liberal term getting thrown about so I will give you your own title...LUNATIC!!!!!!!!!


January 15, 2007 07:51 PM

Brandon, you toss out a lot of claims here. I agree with you that health care would be more accurately termed disease care, as I've experience firsthand that doctors are only concerned with off-handedly managing symptoms long after your affliction has struck. However, can you name one disease that has been on the rise (per capita, of course)? Can you point to one food that has declined in nutrients over the years? As for your argument about GDP, it is well-known by those conversant on the subject that GDP is a flawed measure that has been put to a whole bunch of irrelevant uses over the years. However, it does raise the question, how would YOU measure quality of life?

Frank Drake

January 16, 2007 12:50 AM

You will live to be 65 if you wear your seat belts and don't smoke. If there's longevity in your family, you will probably live into your 80s.

To live as old as George Burns or Bob Hope, you must want to live that long, and endure the pain and heartache associated with old age.

To live to be a 100 doesn't come by chance; it comes by the design you thought about in your forties, and by living a meaningful life.

Remember you can't control health care in this country; but you can control your own health and happiness.

Brandon W

January 16, 2007 11:30 AM

Name just one? Ok let's start with diabetes:

And that's just the first link that popped up. A more recent article that talks about global statistics is at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/11/health/11diabetes.html?ex=1307678400&en=d40d5896daaca9a0&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

As for nutrient losses, a study at UT-Austin demonstrated it, and here's a link:

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

I know you people want to think I'm a "lunatic" that makes stuff up, but you're the ones out of touch with reality.

M.T. Paige

January 16, 2007 11:53 AM

Please enlighten us poor lost souls. I would really like to get back to reality. This thinking rationally thing that I have been doing all my life must not be working...

Brandon W

January 16, 2007 02:06 PM

You wanted evidence, I gave it to you. It took all of 30 seconds for me to look it up, which apparently is outside your capability. And then you get so caught up on the details that you can't see the forest for the trees. Let me spell it out for you:

1. Billions, perhaps trillions, are spent *yearly* on "economic advancement" which results in damage that requires billions - perhaps trillions - of dollars of "economic development" to clean-up after.
2. Economists just ADD it all together and call it all "economic growth".
3. That isn't very smart.

e.g. I buy a $10 whiffle-ball bat and beat you over the head with it. Then you buy $10 worth of bandages to fix the damages. Economists now say we've had $20 of economic growth. I say we have, at best, a net benefit of Zero.


January 16, 2007 02:42 PM

I can officially confirm that Brandon W is a leftist. Look at how pessimistic he is.

Anyway, Michael, one piece of data you may want to look at is white life expectancy vs. black life expectancy. White life expectancy has risen at a greater rate than the aggregate data. Black life expectancy is lower, due to lower income, but also personal habits of high-fat diets, etc. (obesity is more prevalent in blacks than whites).

Brandon W

January 16, 2007 03:15 PM

If NOT being a Cato-loving CNBC-watching rah-rah cheerleader that believes everything economists come up with is "being a leftist", fine, call me a "leftist". You'd be surprised how pro-market I am; perhaps even more pro-market than you. I just argue for a market that is structured fairly and economic numbers that aren't a bunch of hogwash. And I suppose, to you, that's being a "leftist".

Mike Mandel

January 16, 2007 03:23 PM

Keep it clean, folks. Attacks on ideas are good. Attacks on people are not.


January 16, 2007 04:14 PM

I have to echo Mike, you guys add nothing to the discussion when you slide into hackneyed left-right wrestling. Brandon, I was the one who asked for evidence, not MT, perhaps you didn't notice as you went red in the face at his jibes. MT, you've added nothing to the discussion by calling Brandon a lunatic and not addressing any of his points.

Brandon, back to your claims. Of course, you would pick diabetes, a disease that is a result of affluence, a sedentary lifestyle and cheap calories. It's like citing AIDS as an example of increasing diseases, when its increase is caused by its recent introduction into the population, a more open sexual atmosphere and increased awareness and usage of IV drugs. In fact, as one-third of people with diabetes don't know they have it, you could equally well chalk up diabetes growth to better detection nowadays, as that NY Times article you link to points out. Even if it is actually increasing, it is easily chalked up to increased affluence and people abusing that, not exactly a good example for your increasing diseases.

As for the decline in nutrients that you point to, I'd like to point you to this article, where they point out the flaws in the study you link to:

They state that variability in nutrients among vegetables is high (as much as 40-50 times) and that your researcher used questionable data from 50 years ago that wasn't properly randomized. All this to show a maximum decline of 38%. It's not very compelling evidence. I'm even willing to grant that there has possibly been some decline in nutrients over the years. However, it has been minimal and is not really a big issue. Perhaps I shouldn't have asked you about this as it's not something that would kill people anyway.

You say that it only took you 30 seconds to look up this evidence. That is precisely the problem. Your weak evidence implies that you only have a surface knowledge of these issues and are just railing on about issues you don't really understand.

As for your point about GDP and wiffle bats, you are focusing on the use of GDP to measure benefit (in this case to you and MT) and your interpretation of the true meaning of benefit. However, that is just one flawed use of GDP. GDP is exactly what it says, a measure of Product. All GDP cares about is that one person was employed making a wiffle bat that you bought and that another two were employed making the bandages and applying them to MT's head. Those 3 people don't care what benefit the entire exercise had for the two of you, all they know is that they made $20 off the two of you. Any argument about benefit is a different argument about the proper use of GDP to measure benefit to society, not about the proper calculation of GDP.

M.T Paige

January 16, 2007 10:05 PM

My apologies for turning to school yard tactics. I will stick to issues and not insults in the future.

Everyday People

January 16, 2007 10:10 PM

Life Expectancy....how many more years would you have to work before dropping dead. Kind of dismal really.

Take a look at pension plans, 401(k), etc. You have to be 110 years old in year 2020 inorder not to be penalize by Uncle Sam.


June 7, 2008 10:00 PM

A few things are worth considering, #1 in an individual point of view, an extra 6 years of life may not be much to some; however, if you consider a society as a whole, the cumulative effect is absolutely stunning.

#2, not only the absolute quantitative number is important, the quality of life is also very important. Living to 120 years means nothing if you have to endure arthritis, heart disease, or even cancer, along the way.

Thank you for your interest. This blog is no longer active.



Michael Mandel, BW's award-winning chief economist, provides his unique perspective on the hot economic issues of the day. From globalization to the future of work to the ups and downs of the financial markets, Mandel-named 2006 economic journalist of the year by the World Leadership Forum-offers cutting edge analysis and commentary.

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