Advances in medicine are likely to fuel a gain in human longevity, report says
Life and health
By Ryan Smith
Gains in human life expectancy have slowed over the past decade, but the next wave of improvements is just around the corner, according to a new report from Swiss Re.
Advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment are the most likely areas to improve overall life expectancy, according to the latest Swiss Re report, The future of life expectancy: forecasting long-term mortality trends for insurance.
Future improvements in human longevity will need to be supported by addressing the most common health problems in older people, such as Alzheimer’s disease, along with lifestyle factors and access to healthcare, Swiss Re said.
“As people continue to dream of a life expectancy exceeding 100 years, the gains of the last century are under threat,” said Paul Murray, Swiss Re’s executive director of life and health reinsurance. “Clearly, medical research has the power to drive the next big wave of longevity improvements. However, people need to maintain and intensify their healthy lifestyle choices to ensure they live a longer, healthier life. As a society, we must address the barriers to accessing healthcare.”
Improvements in life expectancy typically come in waves on the back of major medical discoveries or large-scale societal trends like quitting smoking, Swiss Re said. In the 20th century, pharmaceutical advances that lowered blood pressure and cholesterol sparked a strong increase in life expectancy. The global average life expectancy for a person born in 2020 is well over 70 years. In the late 1950s, the global life expectancy was just 55 years.
However, since 2010, factors including obesity-related diseases, the growing impact of Alzheimer’s disease, and unequal access to healthcare have undermined those gains in many areas of the world. As a result, life expectancy has stabilized in advanced markets, Swiss Re said.
US life expectancy falls
The United States is an outlier among advanced markets. As of 2019, only the top 10% of the US population by socioeconomic status have a life expectancy at birth comparable to the OECD average of about 80 years for men and 84 years for women, Swiss reported. Re.
For a man born in the bottom 10% socioeconomic bracket in the US, life expectancy is only about 73 years. This trend is related to unequal access to healthcare as a result of growing socioeconomic inequality.
In addition, with an estimated 70% of the population affected by obesity, ailments such as type 2 diabetes are becoming more common, Swiss Re said. Opioid-related deaths, which have increased eightfold since 1999, have also affected life expectancy.
The absence of medical advances affects life expectancy in the UK
Between 1968 and 2010, around 70% of the improvement in longevity in the UK was attributed to reductions in deaths related to circulatory diseases, Swiss Re reported. This reduction helped fuel an increase in life expectancy from 71 to 80 years. However, since 2010, life expectancy in the UK has increased by just one year, as advances in cancer treatments and the increasing impact of dementia and respiratory diseases have eroded previous gains.
Japan and Switzerland top the longevity list
Japan and Switzerland have some of the highest life expectancies at birth among advanced economies, averaging around 84 years each, Swiss Re reported. This is higher than the countries’ life expectancies of around 70 years. in 1960, and is mainly due to improved cardiovascular health.
The higher life expectancies in Japan and Switzerland are also supported by lifestyle factors and access to well-funded healthcare systems.
The next wave of longevity gains
Advances in cancer treatment and diagnosis have the greatest potential to drive further improvements in longevity, Swiss Re said. For example, liquid biopsies may offer much earlier detection for some types of cancer, while the switching from generalized therapy to more personalized treatments improves cancer survival rates. The use of mRNA vaccines, which have been successfully implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, also has the potential to improve life expectancy, Swiss Re said.
Public policy can also help cancer survival rates. For example, in the UK, the widespread acceptance of screening for some types of cancer has improved survival by more than 50%.
Dealing with the diseases of old age
Addressing diseases that affect people later in life, such as Alzheimer’s and other causes of dementia, will be vital to increasing longevity, Swiss Re said. Alzheimer’s will almost double by 2040, surpassing 1.6 million people.
Several emerging technologies can also affect life expectancy. The use of artificial intelligence in medical research and to guide treatment decisions may yield future gains, Swiss Re said.
“Medical technology, lifestyle changes and access to healthcare will drive the next wave of longevity improvements,” said Natalie Kelly, Swiss Re’s global head of underwriting, claims and R&D. Public and private sectors have roles to play. For the insurance industry, it is vital that we understand these complex factors so that we can continue to protect customers when they need it most and encourage people to make lifestyle choices that support longer, healthier lives.”
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