Michelle Martin

How old are you?

Thursday, April 20, 2023

If you, like me, have reached a certain age, you might have to think about it for a minute. If the years don’t line up right, and the subtraction takes some mental gymnastics, it might take more than a minute. After all, you can’t just think back to how many candles were on your last birthday cake. No one puts that many candles on a cake.

Truthfully, I don’t think about my age very often. I know that according to actuarial statistics, I have well more of my life behind me than ahead of me, but the main health concern I deal with — diabetes — is something that has been with me since well before middle age. Sure, there are aches and pains and more medications and trips to the doctor (and physical therapist) than there once were, but nothing I need to worry about, right?

Then I read the life expectancy statistics for the U.S., and wonder if I should worry, not so much about me as my children and future grandchildren. Life expectancy for a baby born in the United States fell to 76.1 years in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control, compared to 82.4 years in comparable countries.

And while most other industrialized countries saw life expectancy dip in 2020, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, they also saw a rebound in 2021, after vaccines were introduced. The United States saw further declines, and more COVID-19 deaths in 2021 than in 2020.

But COVID-19 is far from the only cause of the United States’ declining life expectancy. There’s the opioid epidemic; firearms deaths — including homicides, suicides and accidents; maternal mortality and lack of access to health care, as well as lifestyle and other factors.

Perhaps most disturbing is the news that life expectancy for children and teenagers is also declining, even though they weren’t especially hard hit by COVID-19. The biggest cause of death for children in the United States now is firearms, outstripping motor vehicle crashes in 2019, with drug overdoses and poisoning the third leading cause of death among people age 19 and younger.

The only age group in the United States that can expect to live at least as long as their peers in other industrialized nations are those who have already reached retirement age.

When Jesus was alive, the average life expectancy in the Roman Empire was estimated to be 22 to 33 years. But nearly half of children did not survive to their fifth birthdays; for those that did, life expectancy rose to about 45 years. That doesn’t take into account the many people who died in young adulthood, whether male soldiers in wars or women in childbirth. When Jesus died on the cross, he was in the prime of his life.

So when you think about how old you are, think about where you are on the arc of your earthly life. Nearly all of us, I think, expect a long arc of growing up, having a long, productive adulthood and then slowly growing old.

But we know that’s not the case for everybody, and, increasingly, it’s not the case for our young people, not even the ones who know when their half-birthdays are and proudly add that half-year when they tell us how old they are.

They don’t have to think when someone asks their age, and they shouldn’t have to think about how much longer they are likely to live. That’s our job, if we are a people of life.


  • family life