What’s the Longest Your Clients (or You) Might Live?

A new Social Security report doesn't expect lifespans in the United States to increase very quickly over the next several decades.

If an advisor wanted to help a client plan for the longest possible life — no matter what the odds are of living that long — what age would the advisor use?

Based on a recent Social Security Administration report, that age would be 122 years old.

That’s the maximum verified age of survival for a human, and it shows no signs of extending significantly, says a June 2022 report by the administration’s Office of the Chief Actuary.

”Biological researchers suggest that extension of the maximum lifespan would require a fundamental alteration of the aging process. This may be possible, but there is no clear evidence that it will be achieved in the future,” the chief actuary office observes in “The Long-Range Demographic Assumptions for the 2022 Trustees Report.”

The report includes many interesting statistics on the dramatic improvements in the average U.S. human lifespan over the last century. At the same time, the maximum observed lifespan hasn’t improved as much. “This suggests that even with continued technological advances, the inherent limitations of the physical body and the mind to endure successfully past about 110 years will gradually result in a decelerating force of mortality improvement,” the report said.

But even when looking at the average human lifespan, the report questions how fast it can be improved going forward.

Rapid improvements since 1900

Since 1900, extremely important developments have helped people live longer. Those developments included better medical care, in particular brought on by Medicare and Medicaid coverage for the elderly, disabled and poor. Other factors include the discovery and availability of antibiotics and immunizations, clean water and waste removal, and a rapid improvement in the general standard of living.

Mortality also improved because of advancements in prenatal and postnatal care, blood pressure and cholesterol medications, and heart-related procedures.

The report expects those developments to make a smaller contribution to mortality improvements in the future.

Negative vs. positive

The chief actuary office came up with an extensive list of factors that could affect mortality in the future. However, a lot will depend on whether negative or positive factors win out. For example, the report notes substantial increases in the prevalence of diabetes and obesity, decreased environmental air quality, and an increase in the negative side effects from invasive surgical procedures.

“On the other hand, there is good basis for speculation that there will continue to be substantial breakthroughs in advancing medical technology and treatment in the future,” it continues. “The extent to which such new technologies will have purely positive effects (like improved sanitation) versus mixed effects (as in the case of chemotherapy) will determine their potential for improving mortality. A fundamental consideration, however, is the ability and willingness of society to pay for the development of new treatments and technologies, and to provide these to the population as a whole.”

Over the last 60 years, the national expenditures for health services, research and development have been remarkable. “Total national health expenditures have risen from 4 percent of GDP in 1952 to nearly 18 percent of GDP by 2019 … However, national health expenditures cannot continue to expand at this pace in the future,” the report maintains.

It notes, “the Medicare Trustees Report projects a dramatic slowdown in the rate of increase in per-enrollee Medicare spending in the future, even as the average number of enrollees will be increasing. Even with improved efficiency and targeting of medical care in the future, a deceleration in spending per enrollee of this magnitude will tend to slow the rate of reduction in mortality.”

Although fewer people, particularly men, are smoking today than 30 years ago, other behavioral factors are now a big concern. Reduced physical activity and consumption of excess calories have led to a rising obesity epidemic. And even if that stabilizes, the report says, an increasing portion of the adult and aged population will have been obese for long durations. That result will increase the negative cumulative effects from diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The report acknowledged that education and income are correlated with living longer, one factor that suggests advisory clients may live longer since they tend to have more of both.

Increasing education and income for the population as a whole may provide some further benefits, the report says, but substantially less than in the past, given that further increases in education are likely to slow.

Smaller improvements for women

While it’s no secret that women as a group currently live longer than men, the report notes that the projected rates of improvement for women 50 and older going forward are slightly lower than for men in the same age group.

“This is consistent with the Trustees’ long-held belief that average rates of mortality improvement for women, which had been faster than for men until around 1980, would ultimately converge with male improvement rates. Evidence that improvement for women will not always be faster than for men is apparent in data for years since about 1980,” the report says.

Still, U.S. mortality rates are expected to decline overall, although more slowly in the past, over the next several decades, the report said. For its 2021 Long-Term Budget Outlook, the Congressional Budget Office assumed lower mortality rates will result in a life expectancy at birth of 82.2 years in 2051. In the Census Bureau’s 2017 National Population Projections, the assumed mortality rates result in a life expectancy at birth of 85.6 years in 2060.

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