Within the next 10 or 15 years there will be a big leap in human longevity that will radically change our society, will greatly affect international relations and the business world, and will also transform the way that advisors conduct their practices and service their clients. Not only will people live longer, those added years will be relatively happy ones, with much less isolation and infirmity than marks many people’s older years today.
Conversations with psychologists and priests and physicians and scientists, along with consideration of demographic data from the Census Bureau and research reported for organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, and symposia of demographers and actuaries, lead to a convincing argument that advances in genetics and technology will forever change life expectancy and our experience of old age, at least for the average upper-middle-class to wealthy person living in the developed world–which probably covers most of your clients, and you. People will regularly reach the age of 100 and often surpass it.
The practical implications of the coming leap in longevity are stunning, coming as it does–not coincidentally–just when the 76 million baby boomers reach traditional retirement age. In this, our special issue that celebrates the 25th year of Investment Advisor, it seemed appropriate to look ahead, to lay out the evidence for this massive shift in society and the advisory profession, to explore the advisor business models that seem well suited to prosper in the next 25 years, and to suggest investing vehicles that you can use for your clients in this brave new world. Consider this 25th anniversary special section as a roadmap to the future that provides directions and suggestions for how you can help clients reach their goals, and for you to reach your own.
So what should you be preparing for today to position yourself and your practices better for tomorrow, to keep serving your clients as they begin to live longer, as their retirements change, and as their experience of aging becomes not just more bearable and longer, but more enjoyable?
If it’s a challenge to write an estate plan covering three existing generations, imagine how much more challenging it would be to go out to five or six generations.
If a 4% annual distribution from a retirement plan seems prudent to keep a 65-year-old client from running out of money by age 85, imagine if you added 20 years to her life expectancy, or 30, or 50 years.
I’m sure many of you already go beyond age 85 in writing plans for clients. A. Michael Lipper sold his research firm to Reuters, but he still runs Lipper Advisory Services, an RIA, and he projects out plans for clients to age 120. Ricky Grunden, a fee-only planner in Denton, Texas, not only writes plans for his clients up to age 100, but his firm’s business plan assumes he’ll reach age 100–is that what your plan assumes?
Some people see an aging population and increased longevity and paint a bleak picture of wealthy old white people being kept alive by a combination of technology and poor dark-skinned people, leading to even greater divides within the country and among nations. Others look at the aging populations in Western Europe, North America, and Japan and worry that we will have a rich, old North, and a poor, young South–hardly a prescription for world peace. That scenario is possible, but I believe that the evidence suggests that we are entering a golden age of old age, when most Americans will live much longer and potentially much richer lives.
Why So Long?
Everyone interviewed for this particular story–money managers, economists, the folks who run some of the companies that you do business through, and advisors–was asked for their reaction to this possible leap in longevity. What would they do differently? How would it affect their practices and business plans?
The most common, direct response was a question: “Why would I want to live that long?” That’s because our experience of advanced old age tends to be quite distressing and even depressing. Who wants to live another 20 or 30 years if those years will be spent in a nursing home, cut off from families and friends, in declining physical health and with the specter of diminished mental capacity–of Alzheimer’s and dementia–hovering over us?
The natural end of life will continue to hold some of those fears, and–here’s a news flash–we all will die. But research in everything from nanotechnology to biotechnology suggests that old age will be longer and more enjoyable since we will be able to prevent many of the disabilities that we associate with old age, and treat those disabilities and diseases not only with advanced drugs but with tissues and organs and replacement parts grown from our own stem cells.
Increased longevity won’t mean 30 years of living a depressing life in a nursing home, but it will present opportunities for completely new careers and avocations. It won’t mean a time of depression and isolation, but rather increased years of learning, working for personal fulfillment, and connectedness. The challenge will be to ensure that your clients have the financial resources to not just outlive their money, but to enjoy those extra years that all of us will receive.
Your role could very well be to keep your clients connected to a world of experts who make their homes more livable, who make their lives more comfortable, who can not only provide them with referrals to accountants or estate planning attorneys, for instance, but also guide them through the biggest concern of the baby boomers–the healthcare maze.
The research shows that people who live longer, and who not only live longer but also more happily, are connected to other people–to family and friends, yes, but it’s interesting that even centenarians–those people who’ve outlived their friends and most if not all of the other members of their families, have this “connectedness” in common. These people have lived prudent lives–they tend to have limited their use of alcohol and tobacco and are more likely to be physically active–but their most common trait is continued involvement in society–with spouses, family, friends.
How Did We Get Here?
Life expectancy has increased markedly over the past 100 years (see Life Expectancy below). The drivers of that increase are vastly improved sanitation systems, the discovery of vaccines for common childhood illnesses and infectious diseases, the introduction of antibiotics, the understanding of how environmental factors influence health and promote or retard disease, the great improvements in diagnostic equipment and diet.
So if that’s where we came from and how longevity has increased over the past 100 years, what’s the argument that longevity will not just increase in the slow and methodical linear way that it has over the past 50 years, but make a leap? The biological gerontologists Gavril and Gavrilova of the University of Chicago put it well in a 2004 article: “Many scientists now believe that, for the first time in human history, we have developed a sophisticated enough understanding of the nature of human aging to begin seriously planning ways to defeat it . . . we can be further improved through genetic engineering and be better maintained through preventive, regenerative, and antiaging medicine and by repairing and replacing worn-out body parts.” (September 2004 IEEE Spectrum)
The actuaries in Social Security and the Census Bureau are very conservative when it comes to future lifespans, though many private sector demographers are less sanguine. We don’t honestly know how quickly longevity will increase. But we do know what’s responsible for folks, especially older folks’, deaths now and at least since 1900 in this country, and putting together causes of death with the current focus of biomedical research, we can discern some trends that lead us to suggest that a leap will soon occur.
Looking at the list in the Causes of Death (see chart below), notice that only one of the top three causes of death in 1900 remained a leading cause by 2000. These are the diseases that the great medical advances of the 20th century helped tame.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 1900, 30.4% of all deaths occurred among children under age 5; in 1997, that percentage was only 1.4%. Those three leading causes of death, and diphtheria, caused one third of all deaths in 1900.
Looking at the causes of death in another way in the chart above, notice how the death rates for heart disease, stroke, and pneumonia and flu dropped significantly from 1950 to 2000. Heart disease death rates have decreased because of improvements in diet, exercise, decreases in smoking rates, and through the use of drugs, especially statins, and better diagnosis and treatment of heart disease.
The combination of improvements in infectious disease prevention and treatment and the procreative frenzy that followed World War II will lead us into a new demographic universe over the next few decades. One hundred years ago, looked at graphically, the population had a pyramid shape–plenty of young people on the bottom supporting a much smaller older generation. Now the shape of the population is moving toward a rectangular one, where the population of young, middle-aged, and old is roughly the same. Other developed nations–notably Japan, German, and Italy–are ahead of us here. The birth rate in those countries is lower than ours, and their culture and politics keep the numbers of immigrants down, resulting in a much more rapidly aging population than we face here. It’s no coincidence that big cultural changes are already being seen in those countries, including a reassessment of the social welfare state approach.
Evidence for the Leap
How will this leap in longevity come about? Through prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, the three pillars of medical treatment that we’ve followed in the developed world for more than a century. But there’s something new going on that is likely to match the great increase in longevity that marked the first 50 years of the last century–a combination of cutting-edge hardware and software–the technological solution–combined with the other end of the spectrum–biology, or more specifically, advances in genetics.
Some scientists argue that the lessons learned by reliability engineering, a.k.a. reliability theory, in maintaining man-made machines will lead to ways to fix aging parts of man. This means not only finding mechanical substitutions for our organs, but also by growing tissues and organs to replace failed or failing ones–lots of labs around the world are making progress on growing replacement lungs, kidneys, livers, even heart tissue. But beyond fixing the failing, these scientists suggest that prevention might be even more effective. “Even such a simple thing as an adequate supply of vitamins and other micronutrients for expectant mothers prevents extensive DNA damage and many inborn defects,” Gavril and Gavrilova argue. “For example, pregnant mice fed antioxidants, which decrease damage to DNA and other cellular structures, produce longer-lived offspring . . . [this] could lead to the prevention of age-related diseases before birth, analogous to improving the manufacturing process of a computer chip.”
So, the knowledge being gained now in scores of medical schools as well as government and private labs around the world on how the human aging process works will lead to ways of delaying the aging process from better nutrition and vitamins on the one hand, and repairing failing “systems” of the body through the use of cloned tissues from our own cells, particularly through the use of stem cells.
Despite the ethical issues surrounding them–issues that may very well be resolved to most people’s satisfactions through more research–stem cells hold out perhaps the most promise.
Another promising development is gene therapy–connecting a specific gene with the increased likelihood of contracting a specific disease–and even pharmacogenetics–personalized drugs tailored to match our individual genes. A study by Britain’s Royal Society said the use of pharmacogenetics is probably only 10 years off.
And genetics may help stave off the most feared accompaniment to old age: loss of brain function. Consider this report from researchers at the University of Wisconsin: “Stem cells have been suggested as a possible ‘fountain of youth’ for replacing tissues lost during aging. In the brain, replacing lost neurons is a challenge, as they have to then be reconnected with their appropriate targets. Perhaps a more realistic and practical strategy for affecting the aging process would be to prevent the loss of neurons from occurring, thus retaining intact circuitry. Human neural stem cells can be cultured, genetically modified, and transplanted. Using such an approach could delay the effects of aging in the brain, giving a better quality of life.”