What You Need to Know
- Since 1900, there has been a 68% increase in average life expectancy, from 47 to 79 years.
- COVID-19 did reduce life expectancy in the U.S., but it doesn't mean we’ve reached the limits of how long we can live.
- Saying that people are living too long emphasizes the wrong problem. The problem is we aren’t changing fast enough, Carstensen says.
In the past 120 years, U.S. life expectancy has grown dramatically. Morningstar’s Christine Benz, director of personal investment, and Jeffrey Ptak, chief ratings officer, explored this topic in a recent interview with Laura Carstensen, psychologist and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, on the podcast “The Long View.”
Indeed, since 1900, there has been a 68% increase in average life expectancy, from 47 years at birth to 78.9 years at birth in 2014. While life expectancy has dipped since then, to 77.8 years in the first half of 2020 — likely due to the opioid crisis and COVID-19 — Carstensen has a long-term, optimistic view of longevity.
“Make no mistake, I believe longer life can, and I believe will, improve the quality of life at all ages,” she said in a 2011 TED Talk.
In that speech, she explained that since 1900, we have “nearly doubled” the life expectancy, which is more than has happened than in the last two millennia. Over the same time period, she added, the fertility rate has dropped, so an age distribution that used to be shaped as a triangle with young people on the bottom is now a rectangle.
In her interview with Benz and Ptak, she discussed behavior that affects lifestyle as well as how wealth can help add to one’s life span. But in the end, even the healthy and wealthy can’t avoid the Grim Reaper.
Here are some points she made in the discussion that advisors can think about when helping clients plan their future.
1. Avoid the Usual Suspects, and Don’t Rely on Genes
Yes, staying healthy includes not smoking and limiting alcohol, as well as getting exercise and having good genes. She noted, however, that “we have learned that genes are not as important as we thought they were to life expectancy. The way we live our lives, lifestyles, contribute much more to how long we live.”
2. Have a Purpose in Life
As she said in the Morningstar interview, “one of the surprising contributors to life expectancy … has been purpose in life. Those people who feel like they matter to a cause or to other people, to their families, those people who have a real sense of strong purpose, live longer than people who don’t. … The people who say, ‘There’s a reason for me being here,’ are [the] ones who do better and live longer.”
3. Education Has More Impact on Longevity Than Wealth
How does wealth factor into longevity? Typically with higher education levels, Carstensen said. “People who have high levels of education are more likely to have higher incomes,” she said. She added that wealth helps those who get sick, “but education seems to be a better predictor than money for staying healthy. But once you get sick, as most of us do at some point in life, then wealth/income predicts better than education, how quickly you will decline.”