Why are people living for longer?

The age our parents reached is only part of the puzzle.

The age our parents reached is only part of the puzzle.

Longevity for today’s pre-retirees and retirees will be more difficult to predict than for the generations before them. The reason for this is:

1.       Scientific advances in health care

2.       The focus on prevention

3.       Dangerous activities are becoming safer

Let’s look at each of these in turn. Firstly, we are at a point in history where scientific advances make it easier to treat or diagnose some of our main causes of death. Gene therapy is just one example that provides personalised treatment for cancer. Here a patient’s DNA is modified to target the killing of cancer cells and inserted back into the cells. The survival and remission rates show that gene therapy is curing cancer for many; no longer the pipe dream inspiration for a 2002 James Bond movie. Another advancement is that diagnostic tests are becoming much less invasive, such as a simple breath test for lung cancer, the number four cause of death in Australia, because lung cancer is so difficult to detect. Picking up medical problems earlier enables them to be treated much sooner, significantly improving the outcome for the patient.

Secondly, the focus on prevention. We use our smart phones to monitor our sleep and our vital signs. Apps give us rewards and badges for exercising and make it ‘social’ by enabling us to compete with our friends. This is just beginning of what our smart phones will do for us in the future. In 2011, for $100, like many people, I had my DNA mapped to identify and prevent diseases that I had a probability of picking up 20 years or so in the future. I found I had a slightly higher probability than the population to incur stomach cancer. So I now avoid preserved, salted and picked foods and enjoy fresh food, abundant vegetables, whole grains and I maintain a healthy weight.

And thirdly, dangerous activities are becoming safer due to technological advancements. A key win for us as we age will be the driverless car. But transport-related accidents have nothing on falls which are the primary external cause of Australian hospital admissions by a huge margin; many of these falls are from ladders. Molly Meldrum isn’t the only person who suffered major injuries due to a fall from a ladder. Now all it takes is a couple of taps or clicks on a platform like Airtasker and someone else can now safely clean our gutters or prune our trees; easily, quickly and economically.

Life expectancy has been increasing for Australians

In 1960-62, a woman aged 65 would be expected to live to age 80.7 and a man to age 77.5.

In 2013-2015 (latest available) a woman aged 65 would be expected to live to age 87.3 and man to 84.5. That's an increase of about seven years.

Sources: ABS 2014a; ABS 2016 (Table S1).

These numbers are impressive and are among the best in the world. When we look at rolled-up averages for life expectancy, we need to consider that behind the averages are the experiences of individuals.

We can wonder what our own experience might be? Our personal experience with life expectancy is likely to be the combination of our genetic inheritance (how long our parents lived for), our health at this point in time, our lifestyle and our affluence.

A community’s affluence impacts factors such as the work they do or did (and its exposure to risk factors), education levels and its access to quality health care. Obesity is a bigger risk factor for low socioeconomic groups, impacting life expectancy. Obesity has a contagion effect in low socioeconomic groups and fast food providers specifically target low-socioeconomic communities. Regional and remote communities can experience lower levels of public health funding and gaps in expertise from medical professionals and their local hospitals. All these factors all impact a community’s longevity outcomes.

So how might we be prepared financially so that we enjoy these years, the best of our lives?

Melinda Livingstone is the founder of IncomeConnection: matching people seeking an income with opportunities to earn an income from the growing on-demand sharing economy. Melinda wrote her thesis on the Future of Superannuation which included a section on longevity risk. Previously; she has 20 years experience in superannuation, investments and financial planning. She writes and speaks on the on-demand sharing economy.