Low Birth Rates Could Become Caregiving Problem: A HealthCentral Explainer
(flickr, Daquella manera)
Where did all the babies go?
Last year the Pew Research Center reported that U.S. birth rates hit the lowest the country has seen since reliable data on the subject has been recorded.
Between 2007 and 2010, according to the report, the overall birth rate in the U.S. decreased by about 8 percent, and the birth rate among immigrant women, in particular, decreased by 14 percent. And it’s not just America that is welcoming fewer bundles of joy; Europe has been dealing with declining birth rates for several years.
To counter the trend, some European country’s have gone as far as providing monetary incentives for couples to procreate. For example, Sweden offers generous maternity and paternity leave packages for parents and also pays each family a monthly allowance that increases for every child they have. The incentives briefly raised birth rates, only to have them fall again within a few years. Overall, European birth rates remain very low.
In order to maintain the population, each woman must give birth to an average of at least 2.1 children. This rate is called the ‘replacement level’ because it replaces both the husband – who cannot produce a child on his own – and the wife once they die. The extra .1 serves to increase the population by the barest minimum.
But when women have fewer than 2.1 children on a continual basis, population levels begin to decline.
Instead of the population booms threatening to deplete resources in some countries, the U.S., Japan and much of Europe face a very different threat—that they may not have enough people take care of their aging populations.
The state of Alzheimer’s disease
Already, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. One in eight American seniors is living with Alzheimer’s. Helping those with Alzheimer’s disease are 15 million people who act as their primary caregivers. In 2012, those 15 million people provided about $200 billion worth of free caregiving to Alzheimer’s patients alone.
As the Baby Boomer generation ages, the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease will also grow. The Alzheimer’s Association’s 2012 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report projects that by 2030, the segment of the U.S. population age 65 and older will double and that about 6.7 million people will have Alzheimer’s disease – a 30 percent increase from the 5.2 million people over 65 currently affected.
A missing generation of caregivers
So it’s easy to see how a shortage of children today means a caregiver shortage for Alzheimer’s patients in the future.
But it is not simply caregivers for Alzheimer’s disease patients that will be needed. The 2012 America’s Health Rankings found that American’s are living longer lives, which is usually good news. But, according to the study, Americans are also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases during their twilight years that demand a significant amount of care, the type that will require caregivers.
Another study from the United Kingdom’s Office of National Statistics found that life expectancy for women has risen by 4.6 percent since 1990, but their “healthy life expectancy” – the number of years they will live in a state of good health – has risen only 3 percent.
Why fewer kids?
There are many contributing factors to the lowering of birth rates. First, as societies become more educated and affluent, they tend to have fewer children. This is why the U.S., in particular, has relied so much on immigrant families to pick up the slack to sustain population growth.
Birth rates also tend to decline during periods of economic uncertainty when families become anxious about having a lot of children. Some social scientists speculate that this could be a driving factor behind the declining birth rates among immigrant women.
One theory is that couples in developed countries, such as the U.S. and in Europe, have begun to think of children as a ‘lifestyle option’ rather than a necessity to propagate the species, according to an opinion piece published in Slate.
Whatever the reason, if birth rates continue to decline, this lifestyle option could have consequences for the quality of life of the next generation of seniors.
Pew Research, Social and Demographic Trends, U.S. Birth Rate Falls to a Record Low; Decline Is Greatest Among Immigrants. (November, 2012) Retrieved from: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/11/29/u-s-birth-rate-falls-to-a-record-low-decline-is-greatest-among-immigrants/
CIVITAS Institute for the Study of Civil Society, Family Policy, Family Changes (March, 2006). Retrieved from: http://www.civitas.org.uk/press/prcs43.php
Alzheimer’s Association, 2012 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures (2012). Retrieved from: http://www.alz.org/downloads/facts_figures_2012.pdf
Medical News Today, People Worldwide Are Living Longer But Sicker (December, 2012). Retrieved from: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/254037.php
Wise, Jeff, About That Overpopulation Problem, Slate (January, 2013). Retrieved from: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2013/01/world_population_may_actually_start_declining_not_exploding.single.html