Why Recalculating Health Care Costs For Our Aging Populations is a Green Issue

The age where this sign applies is older than it used to be... photo: Ethan Prater via flickr.

While it might not seem at first that a new study, being highlighted by BBC News, on the overestimation of how much health care costs for our aging populations are likely to increase has an immediate connection to environmentalism, in fact realizing that we may have to spend considerably less money here, as people are productive at much older ages than they used to, has big implications on how we discuss population growth and economic expansion. Age 65 Isn't As Old As It Once Was
The research, published in Science, was done by a team of US and Austrian researchers, says the current methods of measuring aging is based on somewhat outdated and ultimately misleading information.

Using current indicators of aging based on a simple chronological measure, published by the UN, someone is considered old by the time they reach 65. But this is no longer an accurate assumption, in terms of determining health care and retirement costs, as due to people living longer and being productive longer, someone that is 65 today really isn't 'old' in the way someone of that age might have been in previous generations.

The study authors propose using a new measure, called the Adult Disability Dependency Ratio, "based on disabilities that reflect the relationship between those who need care and those who are capably of giving it." Using this method, the speed of aging and it's influence on society is reduced by 80%.

Older People Productive Later Into Life Than in Previous Generations
As far as one policy implication, the authors say that slow and predictable changes in the retirement age, the age when one can start collecting pensions, are justified--though as recent events in France show, there will be backlash to this. Increased longevity and better health care mean that many older people can continue to contribute to society for much longer--even if in some cases it also means people live with disability longer.

Economic Impact of Aging Population Less Than Feared
The green angle is this: As population growth stalls or goes negative in some areas of the world (Japan and Europe in particular) there is concern about how the decreasing percentage of the young population will be able to pay for their aging neighbors. This can be used to justify increased economic expansion, and hence likely increased environmental pressures, when it's not as aggressively needed.

While it's important not to overstate the case--again, improved health care can be a double-edged sword, if people are able to live longer because of it but at greater financial cost--one way to interpret this study is that if more people are not economically old, that is they are still contributing to society on their own and not collecting pension or requiring increased health care, there is less burden on falling population levels from an otherwise aging population.

Environmental Benefits of Declining Population & Resource Consumption Many
Whether you choose to focus on increasing resource consumption or rising global population as the bigger problem--personally, I think they are both issues, hard to disentangle and of differing import depending on the specific location being discussed--when it comes to using this planet's finite resources in a more sustainable manner, having less of both is a good thing, assuming of course that people's basic needs and human rights are met.

Remember that if everyone consumed resources like the average American we'd need 4-point-something planets worth or resources to do so, slightly less if everyone lived like the average European.

Improved Health Care Can Reduce Poverty & Slow Population Growth
Which is all to say that naturally falling population levels in places with currently high levels of resource consumption is a win for the environment. And improved health care allowing people in those places to be productive members of society longer, and therefore requiring less increased economic activity to support them from the younger generation, is also a good thing. Improved health care globally also can lead to lowered rates of population growth, also a good thing.

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More on Population Growth & Health:
Improved Health For All: Critical to Reduce Population Growth & Poverty
Australian Anglican Church Says Population Growth May Break Commandment 'Thou Shall Not Steal'
Connecting the Dots: Population Growth, Consumerism & Biodiversity Loss Tangled Together

Tags: Economics | Health Care | Population Growth