Motivated by such questions and concerns, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) requested that the National Research Council (NRC) launch a major investigation to clarify patterns in the levels and trends in international differences in life expectancy above age 50 and to identify strategic opportunities for health-related interventions. NIA was also interested in the identification of areas for future high-priority research.
Responding to this request, the NRC appointed a panel of experts to prepare a report clarifying the state of scientific knowledge in this area. In addressing its charge, the Panel on Understanding Divergent Trends in Longevity in High-Income Countries confronted a large and burgeoning theoretical and empirical literature with contributions from virtually every field within the social and health sciences. In order to make sense of the vast amount of work, the panel decided to commission a set of background papers, each dealing with a topic relevant to the panel’s work. This volume contains those papers. The panel’s report, Explaining Divergent Levels of Longevity in High-Income Countries, is being published separately.
Taken collectively, the papers in this volume provide an assessment of the plausibility of the most obvious possible explanations that have been advanced to explain the poor position of the United States in terms of life expectancy above age 50. The authors, all of whom are at the forefront of work in their fields, provide state-of-the-art assessments of the research and identify gaps in measurement, data, theory, and research design where they exist.
For some topics, there is surprisingly little direct evidence that can address the basic question. A necessary prerequisite for investigating the importance of any potential explanation of differences in levels and trends in mortality between countries is the ability to examine comparable country-level information on the potential explanatory variables under consideration. Without such information it would be difficult, if not impossible, to draw conclusions with any degree of confidence. Fortunately, thanks to the HRS (the Health and Retirement Study) in the United States, ELSA (the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing) in the United Kingdom, and SHARE (the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe) across Europe and Israel, there are now comparable large-scale international surveys that contain important measures of many variables of relevance. However, the empirical basis for certain conclusions is significantly stronger in some cases than in others. For example, a lot is known about international differences in smoking patterns and levels of obesity, but far less about international differences in stress, physical exercise, and social networks.
The papers in this volume offer a wide variety of disciplinary and scholarly perspectives. Many different disciplines have made theoretical and empirical contributions to the study of mortality. The current collection is to some extent an amalgamation of concepts and insights—both old