Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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New topic 2019-05-24 20:49:32 description

The Nation's Future Health Profile

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As the nation's health steadily improves, it's going to cause some problems of a social nature. {bottom quote}

The most astoundingly good news about health is frightening, precisely because it is so astoundingly good. The average life expectancy of Americans has increased by three years during the last decade. That's right, we got thirteen years for the price of ten. Most of that improvement has come from taking daily aspirin tablets, or from taking the anti-cholesterol "statin" drugs, with a resulting decrease in the death rate from heart attacks and strokes by roughly 30%. It seems possible to hope for another three-year extension of lifespan in the next decade; when statin drugs lose their patent protection they will become a lot cheaper, and many more people will take them regularly. It seems churlish to emphasize the negatives of such a miracle, but unfortunately, it's questionable if our political and financial mechanisms can readjust to such an unprecedented commotion.

It could get much worse. The improvements in cancer treatment have lately been much slower and more expensive. If someone invented a treatment for malignancy which proved to be safe and cheap, we could get another five years, followed by still another five years as the patents run out and doctors get the hang of using it. Everybody could then reasonably expect to live to be ninety. What the Social Security and Medicare budgets would look like under those circumstances, must simply boggle the mind. If people mostly lived to be ninety, comparatively few of them would have much serious illness before they were sixty-five. The vast bulk of medical expense, for practical purposes almost all of it except obstetrics and psychiatry, would become Medicare expense. People would of course eventually die of something, and all of those terminal care costs would be Medicare costs. The government would, of course, begin to see what is happening and attempt to change the political arrangements for financing it, but that would be resisted bitterly, and it would be slow. What would not be slow would be the decision by employers that there is no sense in accepting financial responsibility for health costs which no longer have much impact on working people. Right now, health insurance amounts to forcing employees under the age of forty to subsidize the costs of other employees between the ages of forty to sixty-five. If that curve shifts to the point where everybody under sixty-five is essentially subsidizing people on Medicare, well, say goodbye to employer-based health insurance. Not later, right now. At the end of whatever calendar year, employers all wake up together and start a stampede out the door.

The first issue, of course, is not how to shift around the costs of medical care, but how to pay for staying alive. We can raise the age for beginning Social Security benefits, but that doesn't create money, it just shifts retirement cost from the government to the individual. What matters is that people must keep working longer, earning at least enough to support themselves; and that implies greater competition with younger people for available work. It may mean greater resistance to immigration, particularly illegal immigration, and a greater appreciation for frugal living. But shifts of twenty or thirty percent in the workforce within a decade probably cannot be accomplished, any more than they could be accomplished in Africa after the elimination of epidemic diarrhea and other tropical diseases. Genocide as an avocation does not seem very appealing, either. One suspects something similar happened to India with British colonial rule, better water and drains, and all that. And one has to speculate that something like that is being concealed in China, for all its vaunted growth in Gross Domestic Product. Selectively killing all girl babies at birth, and all boy babies after the first one seems more drastic than we would accept. But we must eventually do something, with the first step being a general appreciation of the problem. Overpopulation may or may not be the problem; the problem is too many healthy people past the traditional age of employment.

Somewhere in the writings of Aristotle is the maxim that all culture comes out of the wealthy classes because only the wealthy have time for it. Aristotle is obviously now out of date on that topic, because we can easily foresee a population of healthy old folks with time on their hands. Our cultural institutions seem painfully slow to recognize, not just their new customer base, but the potential creative base. Surely, Grandma Moses is not the only artistic self-promoter in her age group. And surely, adolescent love affairs are not the only topic capable of attracting a mass audience. Improved cataract extractions, better hearing aides, and outstanding dentistry will surely make it possible to foresee more grown-up tastes in music, the visual arts, and culinary skills. Once these old folks stop predicting their own impending deaths and face a twenty-five-year future on the golf course, a flowering transformation of the arts is safely predictable.

But that's not enough. Most people were not born with the talent to carry a musical tune or draw a straight line, and many of those who do have some talent feel the arts are trivial. For most people, the way to fill up a quarter of a century is to go back to work. I didn't say it was easy. There is just no feasible alternative.

Originally published: Thursday, June 22, 2006; most-recently modified: Friday, May 24, 2019