Medicare and Life Expectancy


Radley Balko noted some good news about unprecedented life expectancy in America the other morning. Sheldon Richman draws our attention to an interesting fact about the intersection of government-paid-for health care and life expectancy:

In 1930 average life expectancy for Americans at age 60 was 74.5 years. (Infant mortality pulls down average life expectancy, hence the measure "at age 60.") In 1960—five years before Medicare began—the average jumped 2.6 years, to 77.1. By 1990—25 years after Medicare began—it had jumped to 79.7—again 2.6 years.

Medicare did not make the upward-sloping life-expectancy curve any steeper!

For historical context, from 1900 to 1960, overall life-expectancy increased 22.4 years, from 47. 3 to 69.7.

I hasten to add that the medical system may be the least important factor in life expectancy, and one must never judge a country's health care by that measure. (Too many other factors—lifestyle, genetics, culture—play more important roles.) Nevertheless, it is interesting to know that Medicare did not improve the rate of progress in life expectancy that was occurring before the program started.

As Richman notes, this point is not dispositive about the value of health care systems, or even of health (and be careful not to conflate the two). But if anyone does believe that surely having the state pick up the tab for health care is going to lead to longer lives, in the aggregate doesn't seem to be much effect.