Brendan Maton outlines the factors that are helping us to live longer - and costing us more in pension terms

It is not necessary to be an actuary or a medical expert to realise that longevity is rising in most countries of the world. The facts are well-documented that average life expectancy for Western Europeans has been rising at a rate of about two years every decade. Europe’s largest corporate pension plan, run by UK telecommunications company BT, calculates that an extra year in longevity assumptions raises its liabilities by 4%.

Extrapolated to Europe’s old-style defined benefit provision, this equates to roughly €64bn. So the €64bn question for pension providers poses itself: will people’s lifespan continue to expand at a similar rate, or is there a limit to natural life?

Seated among the optimists’ ranks would be Creationist Christians, Professor James Vaupel of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research and Tracy Anderson. The last may not be well-known in the field of pensions science but she is the proud inventor of the Tracy Anderson Method - an exercise regime credited with keeping fiftysomething celebrity Madonna in shape. Anderson believes the Method will ensure Madonna looks the way she does now for another 50 years. “I want anyone up to 100 years old to be able to have the best body ever - against ageing, against genetics.” (1)

We will have to revisit this topic in 2059 with an updated photo of Madonna in order to verify Anderson’s claim. But she is without doubt on the right track when it comes to combating ageing through exercise. In the last two decades, death from circulatory malfunctioning and diseases, notably heart attacks, fell almost 19% among Japanese male pensioners. Among Canadians, the drop was 16.6% and among Americans it was 14.3%. Better diet has played a part but increased aerobic exercise by middle-aged folk, starting from the jogging craze of the 1970s, is the other major factor.

Creationists would not need to be told by their doctor to exercise more in order to believe in long life. Methuselah in the Book of Genesis is reported to have lived for 969 years, shading Adam, the father of us all, by 39 years, and Noah by 19, to be the oldest person - scientifically unproven - ever to have lived.

Professor Vaupel, as one of the world’s leading demographists, has tested his beliefs with rather more rigour than the Creationists. In fact he has specialised in researching centenarians. His work suggests that the maximum life expectancy among G10 countries has risen by more than two years a decade not since the 1950s but since 1840. If that trend continues, the average lifespan by 2050 will be 122.5 years in countries such as France, Germany and Italy. Centenarians are already the fastest growing sector of the population in the US.

Prominently seated on the opposing benches is Vaupel’s compatriot, Professor Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois. Olshansky alledgedly has a bet with one of Vaupel’s camp that if he has a relative that lives to be 150 by the year 2150, and that age can be proven, then Olshansky will surrender a fund currently receiving contributions of $20 ($10 from each opposing academic). The fund should be worth millions of dollars by then but Olshansky seems happy to make the bet.

He has elsewhere refuted Vaupel’s contention that he will see his daughter celebrate her 100th birthday (both men have daughters currently in their 20s).

Olshansky argues that the great leaps in human society that occurred in the first half of the 20th century, like universal health provision and running water, cannot be repeated. In other words, longevity has not developed in a straight line but a curve that will shallow and flatten because there are not many profound improvements left to make. Rather, rich countries have reached the stage where there is nothing for their inhabitants to do but eat sugary food and play internet games.

“Technically anything is possible,” says Olshansky. “But in the real world, we’re just getting fatter.” (2)

The difficulty for actuaries in the real world is gauging where to place themselves between Vaupel’s optimism and Olshansky’s scepticism. As the latter indicates, anything is technically possible. No gene has been found which delivers longevity; no ‘death’ gene has been discovered that switches life off. So biologists are instead left to figure how to support the body in staving off major killers and defying the ageing process. Examples of the former are Statins, the cholesterol-lowering drugs, which have joined jogging and better diet as the strongest enemy of heart attacks.

One example of the latter may be resveratol. This is a natural substance that has been found to activate enzymes which trigger the famine reflex. Resveratol occurs in red wine, which may explain why it is always best drunk with good cheese. Without a slice of Roquefort or Brie, the famine reflex causes the body to switch resources from reproduction to tissue maintenance. This switch has been proven in laboratory tests to increase the lifespan of mice. Inuring themselves to shortage seemed to stave off major diseases as well.

Last June, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline paid $720m (€542.1m) for Sirtris, a research company which looks to synthetically produce resveratol. “I think that if we are right, this could extend lifespan by 5-10%,” the then chief executive of Sirtris, Christoph Westphal, told the New York Times in July.

The problem for actuaries evaluating the impact of this scientific discovery on longevity is that unlike the original lab mice, users of the synthetic resveratol would not have to starve themselves to benefit from the drug. Their only necessary exertion will be unscrewing the medicine jar lid. Which both challenges and supports Olshansky’s contention.

1 The Guardian, 3 January 2009
2 Discover Magazine, ‘Staying Alive’, 6 November 2003