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Health

Japan Won't Be the World Aging Champion Much Longer

A new contender emerges on the world stage—and it's not the US.

by Nick Keppler
Feb 22 2017, 1:00pm

Buddhika Weerasinghe / Getty Images

If you live in a first-world country with great healthcare and limited social inequality, congratulations—there's a decent chance you'll live well into your 80s, according to a new study in The Lancet. Unfortunately for most of us, the United States doesn't meet that criteria.

Researchers from a consortium of UK, US, and world health institutions recently combined 21 forecasting models to predict life expectancy rates in 35 industrialized countries by 2030. All are expected to see increases, some sharper than others. The study forecasts that, for both men and women, South Korea will became the leader in life expectancy, overtaking current world aging champion Japan

Women there can expect to live to 90.8 years and men to 84.1 by 2030. The runners up for women are France, where life expectancy is estimated to rise to 88.6, and Japan, where it's predicted to be 88.4. The runners up for men are Australia and Switzerland. In both countries, men are expected to live until 84, well into their suspenders years. 

The study credits "broad-based inclusive improvements in economic status and social capital (including education)" with the long lives in South Korea and Japan. The two also have lower "inequalities" in terms of access to healthcare for chronic conditions than many western nations. Among all nations studied, South Korea will see the greatest increases in lifetimes for women over the next 17 years and the second-greatest for men (after Hungary), the study predicts. Average lifespans will jump by about six years for both. 

Many countries studied have seen declines in potentially fatal behaviors or public menaces. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have all cut rates of smoking and traffic accidents. Switzerland and France have decreased body-mass indexes among women. Canada and Australia have lowered their blood pressure. All these trends are expected to diminish the number of citizens sent to an early grave.

As for the US, the report had some harsh words over its social inequality and the blind spots in the healthcare system. By 2030, life expectancy will be 83.3 years for women and 79.5 for men, modest gains from the 2010 rates 81.2 and 76.5 years, respectively. The US came in 28th of the 35 nations studied in both predicted male and female life expectancy. The nation will be held back due to inequalities of access to quality healthcare, with higher mortality rates among poor and underserved populations lowering the average. 

"The USA has the highest child and maternal mortality, homicide rate, and body-mass index of any high-income country," the report notes, "and was the first of high-income countries to experience a halt or possibly reversal of increase in height in adulthood, which is associated with higher longevity." The country is unique among the 35 in the study for its lack of universal health coverage and its rate of unmet healthcare needs due to financial costs. 

There will be costs to nations having a whole generation of Betty Whites and Mel Brookses hanging around until their 80s. Pensions and social security funds will be stressed. Retirement might have to be delayed or transformed into part-time work. 

Technology and public places will have to adapt to meet the needs of a large population with sensory and motor limitations. Healthcare systems, too, will have "go beyond simply increasing the number of facilities and personnel" and adopt models of care integrated into homes and communities, the study found.