Magazine article Insight on the News

Time to Weave New Safety Net for Longer Lives

Magazine article Insight on the News

Time to Weave New Safety Net for Longer Lives

Article excerpt

As medical advances yield longer life spans, the Social Security pyramid will crumble. America must come up with fresh ideas for financial and health security.

At the turn of the century most people could expect to live only into their late 40s. Nowadays, people typically stick around until their late 70s. And the news gets even better: According to Michael Zey, executive director of the Expansionary Institute and author of Seizing the Future, about one-third of today's baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) will live, hale and hearty, into their 90s.

"One thing we know for certain is that, as the future approaches, we are going to have a lot more elderly people," notes futurist Jennifer Jarratt. "And that will raise questions about aging - specifically, can we slow down or reverse the aging process? It has always been a dream: to square off the death curve."

It's not an impossible dream, according to Zey, who predicts that developments in medicine, especially gene therapy, "superdrugs" and advances in fetal-tissue research will extend healthful life further than ever thought possible.

Most intriguing of these new advances, he says, is the brand-new science of nanotechnology. Originally developed as a manufacturing device, nanotechnology builds material "from the atom up." For instance, it might one day be used to regenerate blood and tissues. "Think of what this means," notes Zey. "Whatever is deteriorating in the body - just replace it. The people working in this field are pure scientists: physicists, chemists, metallurgists. It is new but it's growing. At this point, I would say of the idea that we can regenerate tissue, it's not a matter of if but when."

Zey also believes that, aside from these sci-fi adventures in biotechnology, people will become more personally involved in their own care. Computers will ease the exchange of health information and allow access to computer diagnostics and the latest medical research. "This is very controversial," Zey says, "but I truly believe that in future years medical breakthroughs will be made not only by scientists but also by individuals seeking to cure themselves. The great example of this is the AIDS activists; these were people who became fed up with waiting and became their own doctors."

He adds, "Medical breakthroughs are not only adding years to life, they are adding life to those years."

Then, in what may be Zey's most radical and controversial prediction, he says actual immortality may be in reach within the 21st century which he calls the Macroindustrial Era. Cell regeneration, he says, can give us "what we have claimed to want for the last 30,000 years - immortality."

But these rosy visions represent only one side, and a far-off one at that, of the future of aging and health in America. Nearer at hand, on the political side, a dark cloud looms heavily over the fate of two programs beloved of the country's elderly: Social Security and Medicare.

As Social Security slouches toward bankruptcy - a fate nobody denies and that most estimates place at occurring around the year 2029 - calls for reform are becoming louder and more urgent. Since Social Security is not a real pension plan but a legal Ponzi scheme, payments to current retirees depend upon taxes from today's workers. When Social Security was started, right after the Depression, there were 16 workers contributing to the payment of each retired person. By the year 2030, the ratio will be 3-to-1. Taxes for Social Security already have been raised six times since its inception. In 1949, the average tax under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act, or FICA, was about $90 a year; today, it's around $9,000.

In fact, most American workers pay more in Social Security taxes than they do in income taxes, so the idea of raising them yet again will be politically unpalatable - especially given most workers' mistrust of the system. Last year, the New York-based group Third Millennium conducted a poll which found that more baby boomers believed in the existence of UFOs than in the possibility that any Social Security money would be waiting for them when they retire. …

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