Date: October 1st, 2006
A startling change in the human species has taken place over the past 100 years, according to Nobel Laureate Robert W. Fogel, director of the Center for Population Economics and a professor in the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago. Fogel and his colleagues have found that people in industrialized countries are taller, heavier, and living dramatically longer than they did a century ago. In 1900, only 13 percent of 65-year-olds would live to 85. Today, nearly half will live that long. Moreover, chronic ailments like heart disease, lung disease and arthritis occur 10 to 25 years later in individuals today.
Fogel, an economic historian, has described this rapid change in the aging process as the “techno-physio-evolution” of the human species, brought about by environmental factors rather than genetic changes. For his pioneering work, the Alliance for Aging Research has selected Fogel as the recipient of its 2006 “Indispensable Person of the Year for Health Research Award” for his unique contributions to aging and longevity science.
It may seem an unusual award to bestow upon an economic historian, but Fogel's career is unique. Fogel is one of the leading scholars of what is known as the new economic history, or “cliometrics,” which uses quantitative methods as well as theory to explain economic and social change. For his contributions, Fogel won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Economics for “renewing economic research.”
Born in 1926 to Russian immigrants, his early love of learning was fostered by parents and an older brother whom he greatly admired. As an undergraduate at Cornell University, Fogel started out in physics and chemistry, but shifted to economics and history. “In 1944, there was great concern in the public press that we would slip into an economic depression like the 1930s,” he said. “I wanted to study those issues. When I started, they were just beginning to apply modern economic statistical and analytical methods to economic history. I was one of the early batches of students to do so.”
After Cornell, Fogel earned his M.A. at Columbia University and Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University. His research career has revolved around three main projects: the study of railroads and economic growth; the economics of slavery; and the creation of lifecycle and intergenerational data sets that permit the study of mortality and chronic disease. Fogel became known for combining theory with a more aggressive use of economic methods, as well as a willingness to take on controversial subjects. “I am an empiricist,” he said. “I'm quick to inquire, ‘where can I get evidence on that?’”
That emphasis on evidence has led Fogel to mine data in unusual sources. His work on aging actually began with his work on slavery, which included the study of Coast Guard ship manifests now found in the National Archives. To compare aging 100 years ago versus today, Fogel and his colleagues analyzed Old Civil War records in the National Archives. Instead of relying solely upon death certificates, they looked at the health of Civil War veterans over the course of their lives. Source documents included regimental daily logs, which showed who was sick and for how long; census documents, pension records, and periodic doctors' reports on the pensioners. According to Fogel, the field has benefited enormously from computer technology, which makes possible the analysis of thousands of records with multiple variables.
The results show not only more individuals living longer, but also an increase in their size: American men are nearly three inches taller than they were 100 years ago and about 50 pounds heavier. The reasons for these rapid changes, according to Fogel, are a more healthful environment, in utero and up to maturity.
It appears that cleaner water and other public health advances, changes in personal habits, and strides in medicine have all contributed to the positive changes in aging. Since these developments have happened simultaneously, one of the challenges of the ongoing research is determining the relative weight of these factors.
Fogel himself is focused on the economic dimensions of his findings: “If we live longer, how are we going to support ourselves and health services?” he asks. In the U.S., the portion of the GNP devoted to health care is now 13 percent, with the prediction that it will rise to over 20% by 2030. “Demand for services will grow with an aging population, even if disability declines.”
Of his many accomplishments, Fogel says he is most proud of his current work on aging. “I thank the stars for the accidents that led me to this,” he says. Why does he continue to work? “I love it — I'm having fun,” he says. “If you want to torture me, you'd tell me that I couldn't work.”
Not surprisingly, his advice for living longer and enjoying it is, “Don't retire!” Fogel adds, “Remain active intellectually and physically.” Just, as we might add, as Fogel has himself, uncovering exciting evidence about the human potential for change in the process of aging.
For further reading:
- Article in The New York Times, July 30, 2006, citing Professor Fogel's research.