Are we headed for a one percent phenomenon in longevity?

Ken Dychtwald

Ken Dychtwald

Could the one percent soon get to live twice as long as the rest of us – maybe even forever?

Immortality may not be in the cards just yet, but exponential breakthroughs in technology and medicine will make possible lifespans of 150 years or more, according to Ken Dychtwald.

Dychtwald, a pioneering expert on gerontology, longevity and how the baby boomer wave will impact society, says dramatically longer lifespans will not necessarily translate into healthier years, and the longevity gains will not be experienced by everyone.

Instead, we are headed toward a one percent phenomenon, with only the very wealthy able to afford the cutting edge healthcare that adds meaningfully to life.

Dychtwald points to the entry of a new breed of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with big resources at their disposal.

Craig Venter, one of the first scientists to sequence the human genome, launched a company last year called Human Longevity Inc that plans to apply genetic sequencing to some of the most challenging issues involving aging. Calico, a company focused on extending lifespans, was launched by Google Inc in 2013. There is also big money chasing longevity from the Facebook Inc, eBay Inc and Napster fortunes.

A recent headline in The Week magazine summed it up well: “How Silicon Valley’s billionaires are trying to defy death”.

The new research money is largely private and unregulated. The big breakthroughs will be very expensive and available only to the very wealthy, at least initially.

“There will be breakthroughs in the next 15 or 20 years that will have to do with aging itself – actually stopping the biological clock,” says Dychtwald. “And I think that really rich people are going to get access to it, people who are willing to spend almost unlimited sums of money. Imagine a time when ten thousand really rich people get to live forever, or not have to get dementia.”

Read more of Dychtwald’s comments in my Reuters Money column this week; an edited transcript of our longer conversation follows.


Q: Ken, what’s the big buzz in your world these days?

A: One of the things I’m focused on are the key forces that will change our ideas about maturity and longevity.The idea of living to 80, 90 or 100 – it will be commonplace for kids today to live to 150. The breakthroughs in technology will be exponential.

But I think that the complexity of life and maturity involves many things. And each of these are changing both because of numbers of people, lengths of our lives, new mindsets about what’s possible. It used to be that retirement and maturity was the other side of the lake – it wasn’t  that complicated. You took some  provisions and you’d probably get there. Maybe not, but probably you would. Now, this feels like you’re in a twisting, turbulent river, you don’t know how long your retirement will be – will you live to 72 or 102? You don’t know what is around the bend, if you’ll break your hip, if your kids will run out of money, it’s all unpredictable. i think what you need in the boat with you is a guide. I think people need to have resources or experts such as the field of aging who can give them some sense as to what is up ahead and help make some choices. and it’s not just in one area or another, it’s all the dimensions of our lives.

In the field of aging, right now it’s a bit like original 13 colonies. most of the people are focused on the needs of the poor and the frail, and they’re usually social service people or nursing home people. As our country lives longer and grows older, every industry is going to be interested in older adults.

Q: That’s provocative – we need to have a much wider view of who provides information and services. There is a need to get that not just from the social service sector but financial services, health care industry are two you probably have in mind.

A: Many others.

Q: Let’s talk about financial services. When you think of the role of financial services companies in providing this sort of guidance, I think there is a real trust gap and a “square deal issue.” Far too many of the big financial services companies that are not providing the square deal.

An example on my mind now, is the fight going on in financial services over the so-called fiduciary rules. The industry is fighting tooth and nail not to be required to say that we put the best interest of customers first. That may be more profitable for them, but I don’t see how a company can say on the one hand, “regard us as a great source of guidance on how to age and how to plan your finances,” and on other hand, refuse to step up to that responsibility to guard the interest of customers. The two don’t add up. I’m not saying it is the case with every financial services company, but many need to get square on that issue if they want to be viewed as a trusted resource.

A: I don’t disagree with you. When kids go off to college, there are all these services and  infrastructure to help you consider the decision. Colleges come to high school campuses, you can go vist colleges and stay for a weekend to see if it works for you. And that is something you’ll do for four years. When people are considering retirement, which they may do for 20 or 30 years, who do you talk to? Where do you go to try it out? How do you get a taste of it? It’s very difficult.

Maybe one day there will be retirement counselors or matchmakers, but the proxy we have right now are financial planners, who are not usually expert in all the dimensions of life and retirement. They are mostly people who come out of selling insurance or stocks and bonds. But the field has been attempting in the last decade, because everyone has read the same research about boomers, they want you to be relevant to their lives.

I don’t think what people want from their financial adviser is a life coach. I don’t think they want to talk with their adviser about the sexual problems in their marriages, or where is a good place for a vacation. But I do think they want to have a plan that is holistic.

Q: Yet some of the companies you’re discussing base their business models on commission-based sales of stocks and bonds and mutual funds. That is a different model than a fee-based model that says, “We’re going to make sure you get the investment that is the best for you, not the one that is best for us.”

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