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Longevity Gap

Note to Bernie Sanders: There’s not just a growing income disparity between rich and poor. Turns out, there’s a widening longevity gap, as well.

New research from the Brookings Institution shows that the differences in life expectancy between Americans in the top 10 percent of income and those in the bottom 10 percent had more than doubled in the past 30 years. Rich men born in 1920 could expect to live six years longer than their low-income counterparts; those born in 1950, on the other hand, would probably live nearly 14 years longer.

“There has been this huge spreading out,” study author Gary Burtless told the New York Times.

Here’s how the rich and poor compare on life expectancy:

  • Low-income men born in 1920: 72.9 years
  • High-income men born in 1920: 79.1 years; 6.8 years longer
  • Low-income men born in 1950: 73.6 years
  • High-income men born in 1950: 87.2 years; 13.6 years longer

Burtless and his colleagues are hard pressed to explain what’s happening here, beyond citing pretty strong evidence that affluent, college-educated people have quit smoking en masse over the last 30 years, while poorer folks with only high school diplomas continue to puff away. And exacerbating that problem is the fact that prescription drugs — and high-tech cancer treatments — have become too expensive for low-income Americans.

The Brookings study doesn’t seem to factor in stuff like crime rates, family dysfunction, and other socio-economic stressors that may contribute to an earlier grave. It did point out that the percentage of rich folks who are obese (31 percent) has increased, while that number has remained fairly stable (37 percent) among the poor.

I resided for a good portion of my adult life in the lower 10 percent (despite my college education) and currently find myself pleasantly ensconced somewhere north of America’s median annual income but pretty far south of the top 10 percent, so I’m not sure what to make of this info. It doesn’t seem to only be about the money. I’ve know ridiculously healthy folks who lived on next to nothing and chronically ailing moguls who had more money than they could spend. The major difference between these two groups, it seems to me, is that my poor friends may have been better informed about healthy life choices than those millionaires.

I ran into one of these “poor” friends the other night at our local bistro. Dave’s a few years older than me, probably 67 or 68 now, and looks 10 years younger. I don’t think he’s ever owned a car or had a mortgage, for years he reported no income whatsoever, and he makes a living editing a small trade magazine he founded almost 40 years ago.

What probably sets Dave apart from those low-income folks whose life spans are not keeping up with those of the ruling class is that he’s remarkably well read, passionately intellectual (despite giving up on college after a single quarter), and completely self-sufficient. Unlike most of us, he settled the old “time vs. money” debate long ago in favor of time. He comes and goes as he pleases, avoiding the workaday stress that can plague folks on the career track. An advocate for local, organic food decades before it became stylish, he’s managed to maintain a healthy diet on a small budget. That, along with getting around solely by bicycle for all these years, adds up to a life that I expect will extend quite comfortably into his 80s.

We can’t all live like Dave, obviously. He’s made some decisions (no spouse, no children, few material goods) that simply don’t suit most of the rest of us. But I’ve always been inspired by his love of conversation, his dogged self-reliance, and his ability to thrive in a world of his own design.

We can all make small adjustments to the way we live that can lead to a richer and healthier life — no matter how much dough we make. But will that delay the inevitable? Not even Bernie can promise that.

Thoughts to share?

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