There’s no way to ever know for sure, and some still view
Levitt’s hypothesis as counterfactual. But it’s an interesting case
study in how trends that are widely praised as good for society
at large may benefit from an examination beyond the obvious.
Yes, longevity has surely increased thanks to better surgical
tools and medication. However, just as Freakonomics suggested
that poverty and unstable homes are a breeding ground for future criminals, there is a growing consensus that those same
factors play an equally important role in life expectancy.
Four decades ago, a 60-year-old male making above the
median income in America lived about 1. 2 years longer than a
60-year-old male below the median income level. But in 2001,
that gap had grown to 5. 8 years longer than his poorer coun-
A separate study by the Brookings Institution[ 16] widened the
income gap and time frame even more. It found that American
men born in the top 10 percent of earnings back in 1920 were
likely to live six years longer than those in the bottom 10 per-
cent. But for those born in 1950, just 30 years later, the gap had
more than doubled to 14 years between the highest decile and
Given these facts, you would think issues like the growing
gap between the rich and the poor would factor into longevity
calculations. But inequality or the fact that the typical American is grossly underprepared for retirement aren’t part of the
Neither are the risks posed by underfunding programs like
Social Security or Medicare that quite literally represent the difference between life and death for older Americans at the lowest
end of the income spectrum. Based on the link between income
and longevity, it is hardly a bold assertion to think any reduction
in benefits or raising of eligibility ages for these programs would
have adverse outcomes on longevity.
More research is assuredly needed into the link between income and longevity. But this is just one piece of the puzzle that
is not being examined. What other trends are we overlooking
thanks to our optimism based on past longevity gains?
JEFF REEVES is executive editor of InvestorPlace.com and a
columnist for both Market Watch digital network and USA Today.
His commentary has appeared in numerous financial outlets,
including CNBC, the Fox Business Network, the Wall Street
Journal, and other publications.
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