From Merryn Somerset Webb – MoneyWeek Magazine (Great Britain) –
Over the past century, average life expectancy in most countries has grown substantially. Vastly lower infant mortality, improved living standards, better public sanitation, and the discovery of cures or vaccines for many once-deadly diseases, have seen average life expectancy in most developed nations rise to around 80, compared with 50 in 1900. Developing nations have benefited too. Life expectancy in China, for example, was just 43 in 1960 – it’s 75 today. Indeed, according to the World Health Organisation, no individual nation outside Africa now has a life expectancy of below 60, and even Africa has seen huge gains since 2000, helped by improved anti-malarial measures and wider availability of HIV/Aids treatments.
However, the pace of progress is slowing. From 1900, it took less than 30 years for life expectancy in the US to rise from 50 to 60 years. It took another 40 years to rise to 70, and now, nearly 50 years later, it is still hovering at just below 80. The problem is that while we’ve largely beaten the diseases that used to kill people in childhood, early adulthood and even middle age, we’re having much less success in prolonging the life of the elderly. Here’s a stark illustration: in Britain in 1840, if you made it to 65, you could expect, on average, to die at age 76. In 2011, a 65-year-old could expect to die aged 83. In other words, today you have a far better chance of living to 65 than you did 170-odd years ago. But if you do, your remaining life expectancy won’t be much greater than that of your 19th-century peers.
Of course, the elderly now die for different reasons. In 1900, the biggest killers of the over-65s were influenza and tuberculosis, both now relatively easy to avoid and to treat. Today’s elderly mainly die of cancer, heart disease or strokes, while dementia (of which Alzheimer’s is the main form) limits the quality of life of huge numbers of older people. The prospect of dying from any of these is unpleasant enough, but there are also wider implications for society at large. Low and falling birth rates in many countries raise the spectre of shrinking populations of young and healthy people struggling to support a large and growing group of the elderly and infirm.
The good news is we may be on the cusp of major breakthroughs in the way we deal with cancer, heart disease and even dementia. Indeed, the UK’s Office for National Statistics predicts that a third of children born in Britain today will live to be at least 100. And in the longer run, new treatments may even slow down the ageing process itself – a radical shift that would see older people retain both their ability and desire to work for far longer than we might expect today. So how do these potentially life-changing advances work, and which sectors offer the best opportunities for investors?