Why is the Retirement Age 65?

istock.com/a-poselenov
istock.com/a-poselenov

In the early 1880s, Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck of Germany had a problem. Marxist unrest was spreading across Europe and some of his own countrymen were calling for socialist reforms. To take the wind out of their sails and stave off more radical policies, Bismarck concocted a first-of-its-kind social insurance program wherein the national government would contribute to the pensions of nonworking older Germans.

Along with German Emperor William the First, Bismarck announced the idea in 1881, and the pair made their case to the Reichstag, or German Parliament, that  “those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state.”*

According to the historians at the American Social Security Administration, the usual explanation for that magic number of 65 is that, at the time the plan was created, that happened to be Bismarck’s own age. The story doesn’t hold up, though. Germany initially chose 70 as its retirement age, and didn’t lower it to 65 until long after Bismarck was dead. The choice for the age of eligibility was actually more of a shrewd, and maybe a little cynical, cost-saving measure: it closely matched the average German life expectancy at the time.

Even though his plan was to flank the Marxists, Bismarck (pictured) still drew criticism for the old-age pensions, and the far-right politician was labeled a socialist. The same charge was slapped on President Franklin Roosevelt when he imported the idea to the U.S. decades later. The Committee on Economic Security, which launched the American Social Security system in 1935, selected 65 as the retirement age, but the SSA says that federal government wasn’t simply following Germany’s lead. Their choice was, like the Germans’, pragmatic. Roughly half of the existing private and state-run old-age pension systems, as well as the federal Railroad Retirement System, were using 65 as their retirement age, and the other half were using 70. It was practical for the federal plan to sync up with one half or the other, and the government’s actuarial studies suggested that starting the pensions at age 65 would allow for a system that could easily be sustained with moderate payroll taxes.

That sustainability wouldn’t last, though. In the 1980s, the SSA saw that changes in the number of people in the workforce and in retirement would require reforms to the plan. Congress has since had to make the occasional adjustment to Social Security withholding taxes and the age of eligibility. Currently, the retirement age for full benefits depends on the year a person was born. Meanwhile, the Germans have had to make adjustments to their own historic system, proposing a gradual increase of the official retirement age to 67 over the next few years.

* Just a few years later, Bismarck and William also passed an Imperial insurance order — known in German as the Reichsversicherungsverordnung — which mandated certain workers to pay premiums to health insurance funds.

Why Do People Get Ice Cream Headaches?

CharlieAJA, istock/getty images plus
CharlieAJA, istock/getty images plus

Reader Susann writes in to ask, "What exactly is the cause of brain freeze?"

You may know an ice cream headache by one of its other names: brain freeze, a cold-stimulus headache, or sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia ("nerve pain of the sphenopalatine ganglion"). But no matter what you call it, it hurts like hell.

Brain freeze is brought on by the speedy consumption of cold beverages or food. According to Dr. Joseph Hulihan—a principal at Paradigm Neuroscience and former associate professor in the Department of Neurology at the Temple University Health Sciences Center, ice cream is a very common cause of head pain, with about one third of a randomly selected population succumbing to ice cream headaches.

What Causes That Pain?

As far back as the late 1960s, researchers pinned the blame on the same vascular mechanisms—rapid constriction and dilation of blood vessels—that were responsible for the aura and pulsatile pain phases of migraine headaches. When something cold like ice cream touches the roof of your mouth, there is a rapid cooling of the blood vessels there, causing them to constrict. When the blood vessels warm up again, they experience rebound dilation. The dilation is sensed by pain receptors and pain signals are sent to the brain via the trigeminal nerve. This nerve (also called the fifth cranial nerve, the fifth nerve, or just V) is responsible for sensation in the face, so when the pain signals are received, the brain often interprets them as coming from the forehead and we perceive a headache.

With brain freeze, we're perceiving pain in an area of the body that's at a distance from the site of the actual injury or reception of painful stimulus. This is a quirk of the body known as referred pain, and it's the reason people often feel pain in their neck, shoulders, and/or back instead of their chest during a heart attack.

To prevent brain freeze, try the following:

• Slow down. Eating or drinking cold food slowly allows one's mouth to get used to the temperature.

• Hold cold food or drink in the front part of your mouth and allow it to warm up before swallowing.

• Head north. Brain freeze requires a warm ambient temperature to occur, so it's almost impossible for it to happen if you're already cold.

This story has been updated for 2019.

Why Does Humidity Make Us Feel Hotter?

Tomwang112/iStock via Getty Images
Tomwang112/iStock via Getty Images

With temperatures spiking around the country, we thought it might be a good time to answer some questions about the heat index—and why humidity makes us feel hotter.

Why does humidity make us feel hotter?

To answer that question, we need to talk about getting sweaty.

As you probably remember from your high school biology class, one of the ways our bodies cool themselves is by sweating. The sweat then evaporates from our skin, and it carries heat away from the body as it leaves.

Humidity throws a wrench in that system of evaporative cooling, though. As relative humidity increases, the evaporation of sweat from our skin slows down. Instead, the sweat just drips off of us, which leaves us with all of the stinkiness and none of the cooling effect. Thus, when the humidity spikes, our bodies effectively lose a key tool that could normally be used to cool us down.

What's relative about relative humidity?

We all know that humidity refers to the amount of water contained in the air. However, as the air’s temperature changes, so does the amount of water the air can hold. (Air can hold more water vapor as the temperature heats up.) Relative humidity compares the actual humidity to the maximum amount of water vapor the air can hold at any given temperature.

Whose idea was the heat index?

While the notion of humidity making days feel warmer is painfully apparent to anyone who has ever been outside on a soupy day, our current system owes a big debt to Robert G. Steadman, an academic textile researcher. In a 1979 research paper called, “An Assessment of Sultriness, Parts I and II,” Steadman laid out the basic factors that would affect how hot a person felt under a given set of conditions, and meteorologists soon used his work to derive a simplified formula for calculating heat index.

The formula is long and cumbersome, but luckily it can be transformed into easy-to-read charts. Today your local meteorologist just needs to know the air temperature and the relative humidity, and the chart will tell him or her the rest.

Is the heat index calculation the same for everyone?

Not quite, but it’s close. Steadman’s original research was founded on the idea of a “typical” person who was outdoors under a very precise set of conditions. Specifically, Steadman’s everyman was 5’7” tall, weighed 147 pounds, wore long pants and a short-sleeved shirt, and was walking at just over three miles per hour into a slight breeze in the shade. Any deviations from these conditions will affect how the heat/humidity combo feels to a certain person.

What difference does being in the shade make?

Quite a big one. All of the National Weather Service’s charts for calculating the heat index make the reasonable assumption that folks will look for shade when it’s oppressively hot and muggy out. Direct sunlight can add up to 15 degrees to the calculated heat index.

How does wind affect how dangerous the heat is?

Normally, when we think of wind on a hot day, we think of a nice, cooling breeze. That’s the normal state of affairs, but when the weather is really, really hot—think high-90s hot—a dry wind actually heats us up. When it’s that hot out, wind actually draws sweat away from our bodies before it can evaporate to help cool us down. Thanks to this effect, what might have been a cool breeze acts more like a convection oven.

When should I start worrying about high heat index readings?

The National Weather Service has a handy four-tiered system to tell you how dire the heat situation is. At the most severe level, when the heat index is over 130, that's classified as "Extreme Danger" and the risk of heat stroke is highly likely with continued exposure. Things get less scary as you move down the ladder, but even on "Danger" days, when the heat index ranges from 105 to 130, you probably don’t want to be outside. According to the service, that’s when prolonged exposure and/or physical activity make sunstroke, heat cramps, and heat exhaustion likely, while heat stroke is possible.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article has been updated for 2019.

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