Highlights From The 2008 Living To 100 Symposium
Highlights from the 2008 Living to 100 Symposium
By Steven Siegel and Ronora Stryker
If you couldn't be in attendance, here's your chance to learn about all the exciting developments from the symposium.
In the midst of hurriedly packing to catch my flight to Orlando for the 2008 Living to 100 Symposium, I quickly glanced at my favorite comic strip, "Edge City," and was struck by an uncanny coincidence. This particular Sunday's strip involved one of the characters writing a letter to her friend, who was turning 100 that very day. When told about the letter, another of the strip's characters reflected on all the amazing things a person about to enter the ranks of centenarian would have seen. The strip then illustrated–through a series of vibrantly colorful drawings–that the friend who was about to turn 100 had lived through two World Wars, miraculous cures for polio and other deadly diseases, landings on the moon, and the advent of computers and wondrous global technology, all leading to an inevitable question. "So what," earnestly asked the character, "do you write to someone who has lived through all of this?" The letter writer replied without missing a beat–you write: "Keep it Up!"
I can't think of a better expression of best wishes to a new centenarian and as well, to the organizers of the third SOA symposium dedicated to exploring issues and the latest research on living to advanced ages. The 2008 Living to 100 Symposium–building on the success of the previous two held in 2002 and 2005–gathered together a diverse range of professionals, scientists and academics, in an interactive, multidisciplinary forum for three days of highly engaging sessions. From biological breakthroughs that have doubled the lifespan of C. elegans worms to emerging threats to longevity posed by a steady diet of Supersize meals and gummy worms, the 2008 Symposium covered a breathtaking range of topics.
This article presents a brief summary of the many sessions held at the 2008 Symposium and launches the beginning of a series of articles that will appear in future issues of The Actuary. This series will explore a number of topics from the Symposium and provide an in-depth perspective on each of them. Look for a discussion on the implications of increasing longevity on financial and other systems in the next issue of The Actuary, followed in future issues by topics including emerging trends in retirement, obesity and mortality, social security and an actuarial view of living in good health in old age.
KEYNOTE SESSION AND BIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES ON AGING
The 2008 Symposium led off with a spellbinding presentation by Dr. Cynthia Kenyon on her work with the C. elegans worm and the favorable consequences of dietary restrictions on longevity. Through genetic manipulation, the normal two–week lifespan of the worm has been extended to four weeks or as SOA President Bruce Schobel aptly put it in his introduction of Kenyon, "Four weeks has become the new two weeks." Kenyon also raised a number of social and economic implications that would need to be addressed if such a dramatic extension of longevity were possible for humans.
While Kenyon's work focused on genetic manipulation as a way of impacting longevity, Dr. Leonard Hayflick–in a later session at the Symposium–provided an alternative viewpoint on how this type of manipulation may affect the aging process in humans and its ultimate applicability–or, more accurately, inapplicability. Related to this, Hayflick further discussed several theories on the distinction between the biology of aging, the aging process and age–related diseases. Kenyon's and Hayflick's differing perspectives on the biological causes and effects related to aging reinforced to attendees the complexity of the issues as well as the diversity of opinion in the scientific community–clearly, this was one of the major takeaways of the Symposium.
MORTALITY TRENDS AND MEASUREMENT
Turning from the biological perspective on aging, Dr. Jean–Marie Robine, a demographer and gerontologist who is probably best known as the co–validator of the oldest verified supercentenarian of all time, discussed the concept of the compression of mortality and morbidity. This phenomenon can be observed when the shape of recent mortality and morbidity curves are compared to curves from 100 years ago. When viewed side by side, it appears that the curves have moved towards a rectangular pattern over time. This movement or apparent compression is sometimes referred to as "squaring of the curve." The implication of this trend is that increasing numbers of persons born in the same year are living similar lifespans, with continued compression further suggesting that there is a fixed maximum lifespan. Robine concluded that there is probably a limit to the ultimate amount of this compression, and further conjectured on alternative patterns of mortality that may emerge. In either case, questions remain as to whether or not a fixed maximum lifespan exists when viewed from the lens of mortality trends.
To fully gauge mortality trends, it is vital to measure mortality levels on a precise and consistent basis. Given the fundamental importance that measurement represents for all aspects of the study of longevity, the Symposium included presentations from several of the world's leading thinkers in this area. Included among the topics discussed in the sessions on mortality measurement were data validation techniques and integrity checks. As in many other disciplines, reliable data is the fundamental building block and foundation for new breakthroughs.
The measurement of mortality also bears directly on the projection of future mortality levels. The need for mortality level projections that are thoughtfully developed for many of society's key financial security systems cannot be overstated. For instance, government social security systems around the world depend on soundly based mortality projections for planning purposes to ensure long–term fiscal soundness. In recognition of this, enlightening sessions were held at the Symposium with prominent actuaries from social security governmental agencies in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, presenting their most recent mortality projections and methodologies. It was readily apparent from the sessions that these countries are contending with many of the same longevity issues that may ultimately challenge the long–term solvency of their public programs and the financial well–being of their citizens.
IMPLICATIONS OF LONGEVITY CHANGE
In light of the biological research on longevity and mortality trends observed, an obvious question arises–what do these changes imply to our daily lives and the systems designed to support them? Recognizing the importance of this question, the Symposium held several panel discussions to explore it from a range of perspectives. The lead–off panel discussion, moderated by Anna Rappaport, focused on the implications of increasing life expectancy to employers, individuals, health care and the financial services industry. Among the issues discussed were the individual's perspective in managing personal assets; the role that employers play for employee management of assets and securing protection products; and the increasing need for such products including long–term care, health care and life insurance, and annuities. Views on the challenges, as well as opportunities of the growing number of elderly, were shared by the panelists and capped off with a lively exchange with attendees.
Clearly, the steady growth of the elderly has not only dictated the need for financial innovation and new product thinking among stakeholders, but, indeed, has changed the inherent nature of retirement itself. In another of the panel sessions, this steady emergence of new patterns of retirement was discussed. Included in the discussion on these new patterns, panelists described trends in phased retirement whereby individuals may work later in life than previous generations did, but increasingly in non–traditional ways such as work from home, reduced hours or seasonal employment. In other words, retirees are less prone to find desirable the initiation of retirement as a one–time, discrete event. Overall, the message of the panel seemed to point to the expectation that these new patterns will have a ripple effect across many financial security systems and require them to adjust and align to the patterns. Furthermore, the panel's message dovetailed with a recurring theme that became apparent throughout the Symposium: the need to work longer as a result of increasing life expectancy.
While the ways in which workers retire are becoming more differentiated, there is one thing that all workers as well as retirees have in common–the desire for good health. Addressing the importance of health and its implications, two sessions at the Symposium dealt primarily with the relationship of health issues to increasing longevity, and how the health status of the elderly can be assessed. In one of these sessions, Drs. Robert Gleeson, Thomas Ashley and Stephen Holland–all insurance company medical directors–presented morbidity characteristics of the older age population and medical tests used by insurance companies for evaluating and measuring health. The importance of health status assessment was emphasized by the panel because it bears directly on both the type and financial soundness of products that can be offered for the benefit of the elderly.
In the second session on health at the Symposium, a number of other issues that impact the lives of the elderly were discussed. Mike Cowell focused on the value of a healthy lifestyle, extolling the virtues of eating right and not smoking. Faye Albert, Jim Brooks and Jack Bragg described the concept of measuring health expectancy and the benefits of utilizing it, while Sam Gutterman presented his extensive paper on the impact of obesity on longevity. Further describing the impact of obesity, Dr. Jay Olshansky, the keynote speaker for the day two luncheon session, talked at length about potential declines in longevity due to the rising prevalence of childhood obesity and the concurrent, unforeseen increase in adult–type diabetes occurring in children.
The Symposium was truly international in both scope and attendance with participants coming from over 15 countries. Besides benefiting from the multicountry perspective, attendees repeatedly heard that many of the same longevity trends and issues are not confined to the United States, but shared across the globe. Whether it is the need to change social security benefits in Canada, as suggested by Doug Andrews; the economic challenges of Mexican retirement pension plans described by Roberto Ham Chande; or emerging societal trends in India as a consequence of improved longevity studied by N.V. Subramanyan and Prakash Bhattacharya, increasing life expectancy surely has worldwide impact.
Read more about the sessions and the papers presented in an online monograph available on the SOA Web site later this year. As well, be sure to read the new series of feature articles on the Symposium in upcoming issues of The Actuary. Though it's a few years away, planning for the next Symposium is already underway. Please contact us with ideas on how to make the Symposium more thought–provoking and compelling for you and your fellow actuaries. Whether it's new topics to explore, meeting logistics or anything else that comes to mind, your comments are appreciated. You are a vital part in continuing to make the Living to 100 Symposium an unparalleled event for exploring the fundamental questions of how long we live and what it means to our lives.
BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE SYMPOSIUM
Believe it or not, planning for the 2008 Living to 100 Symposium began all the way back in 2005. Organizing the Symposium is no small effort because of the breadth of topics, solicitation and development of original papers, recruitment of speakers and myriad of details to keep straight. Fortunately, an outstanding volunteer group led the organizing effort in partnership with SOA staff.
We spoke with a few key members of the organizing committee to gather their thoughts on the Symposium and why it's important to them. For Bob Johansen, chair of the committee since its inception in 2000, all three of the Living to 100 Symposiums have lined up well with the SOA's goal "to be recognized as the organization of experts in the field of risks and in particular, the fields of survival and health risks." Based on the strength of the program and the leadership under the SOA, the Symposium, according to Johansen, "has achieved a position of international prestige among not only actuaries, but also demographers, gerontologists, government offices and others concerned with increasing longevity, its implications for the future and possible solutions."
Unfortunately, Johansen was unable to be on–site for this year's Symposium. Instead, his on–site duties were expertly handled by Tim Harris, co–chair of the 2008 organizing committee. For Harris, the overall message of the Symposium is that "we know a little about the issues related to an increasingly long living population and we need to know much more." As to why actuaries should be involved, Harris pointed out that "actuaries are the primary group whose employers (and clients) are most affected by the increasing longevity of the populations. We are expected to advise on topics related to mortality and aging and to protect our employers from issues that might arise."
Anna Rappaport, another member of the organizing committee who led the planning for the implication panels, was most struck by the "discussion of the difference between the study of aging and disease and that aging will happen regardless of what happens with disease." Furthermore, she noted another major takeaway from the Symposium–that "good health is a critically important factor in having a quality life at older ages, and personal behavior is very important to health."
Both Sam Gutterman, who organized the panels on Social Security, and Rappaport agreed that the Symposium is very beneficial for actuaries because of the multidisciplinary discussion. Furthermore, it benefits the profession as a whole to be known as initiating such discussion. As Gutterman noted, "Actuaries can benefit greatly through participation in multidisciplinary and multi–country meetings–they don't have to start from scratch each time they come up with a problem."
Finally, Rappaport noted a personal benefit with which we are sure all attendees would agree–"I got to meet very interesting people who I might not have met otherwise." And this, in a nutshell, is why planning for the next Symposium is already underway.