Pension funds will observe with interest the European Commission’s announcement goal of the European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing. This is to add two years to the average EU healthy lifespan by 2020. However, achieving healthy, longer lives is not quite as straightforward as it seems.

Maria Iglesia-Gomez, head of strategy and analysis at the Health and Consumer Policy DG - the EU’s Ms Active Ageing - poured scorn on healthcare providers, public authorities, and even academic researchers’ reluctance to innovate in the field recently.

She told a recent Brussels conference that, overall, healthcare systems are “slow to adopt changes”. They also fall down when it comes to “health literacy”, meaning that patients are not properly informed.

Expressing personal views, not necessarily formal Commission policy, Iglesia-Gomez went on to accuse service providers of complacency, coupled with complex or unclear regulations. Public authorities, she implies, should overcome their reluctance to ‘buy’ novel solutions.

In detail, she referred to the poor response to the demand for innovation, scattered research and studies across the EU, insufficient exchange of best practice and guidelines, delays in authorisation procedures and under-representation of old people in clinical trials.

The potential areas for action were listed as: prevention, early diagnosis, treatment, medication, and personalised health management.

So, what’s to be done? Inglesia-Gomez, no doubt, has in mind that longevity has been rising by more than three months a year for the past 40 years. But bearing in mind the lack of co-ordination on how to promote an “active and healthy ageing” process, the present position represents an opportunity. What it comes down to, says Inglesia-Gomez, is the need to promote a professional programme of management planning. This is now starting under the guise of the European Innovation Partnership (EIP).
The EIP aims to engage stakeholders such as the EU itself, and national, regional and local authorities, to gather further detailed information on existing initiatives.

Inglesia-Gomez notes that 80% of the over 65 are affected by “multiple chronic conditions” such as heart failure, diabetes, depression, hypertension, osteoarthritis, and osteoporosis. She cites a need to focus on chronic diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s.

Tasks that she sets for the EIP’s steering group include the drawing up of a “strategic implementation plan”. The group needs to identify clear short, medium and long-term goals. She anticipates the steering group meeting for the first time at the end of April. It should draft its first report by the autumn and report on work in progress by the end of this year.

Other initiatives in the effort to prolong active and healthy old age include adopting information technology. Paul Timmers, the Commission’s acting director of information and communication technology in the Information, Society and Media DG, believes this could “unlock and catalyse” active and healthy ageing in the fields of personalised medicines, and “smart” health monitoring.

Taking Alzheimer’s as an example, Timmers told the conference that total costs for care in 2005 were €130bn, but information technology can help detect the disease earlier and keep the elderly mentally active - a point highlighted by the recent UK government annoucement regarding increased use of technology in the field of early mental degenerative diaognosis.

Pension funds must respond to the challenge of a healthier, longer-living society. Speaking at the same conference, Swiss Re emphasised how the financial services industry can contribute to solving the potential pension funding crisis. Alison McKie, head of life and health products at Swiss Re, dwelt on longevity risk, noting that longevity has been consistently underestimated for years, if not decades.

According to Swiss Re, €12trn worth of pension assets are exposed to longevity risk, and underestimating life expectancy by just one year could increase liabilities by 5%.

McKie said that the insurance industry and the wider financial services industry have been taking the lead in innovating to protect against the longevity risk. She gave as an example the case history involving Swiss Re and the UK’s Royal County of Berkshire pension fund’s longevity swap for 11,000 pensioners.