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Aiming to live past 100? It's a rosy world



Living is expensive. Living to a ripe old age of 95, 100 or 105+ is really costly. But, as is often the case, human nature can keep us from facing some of life's realities until we're facing them dead-on. And so it is with making financial plans to live a life into our 90s and 100s.

A survey released in January by the Society of Actuaries (SOC) interviewed 1,006 people between the ages of 45-70. Results revealed that 48 percent of Americans don't have any plans in place to cover what could turn out to be living a long life.

"It's apparent that Americans, specifically the baby boomer generation - many of whom will be eligible for retirement the beginning of the new year - have not saved enough money for retirement," says Anna Rappaport, FSA, MAAA and president of Anna Rappaport Consulting.

Rappaport was one of the presenters at the SOC's "Living to 100" program. During an e-mail interview, I asked her about the popularity of investing into annuities as one way of covering the costs of living a long life. And about the perceptions she's seen from those facing the high cost of living challenges.

Here are her thoughts:

Q: It seems as though annuities of one sort or another would be a slam-dunk for an aging senior's portfolio. But I've heard that's not necessarily so. Why or why not?

A: Many people who believe that lifetime financial protection is important to them often think about annuities. But because there are so many different kinds of them, product features and comparisons can be confusing. To that end, here are some of the reasons that investor often do not accept annuities:

  • Many people underestimate their life expectancy and consequently long term issues are not their first priority.
  • Buying an annuity means giving up control of an important asset -- many people prefer to keep control.
  • The lump sum investment account "feels and looks" a lot bigger than the monthly income one can buy with it.
  • Buying an annuity may mean no inheritance for one's heirs - but there are different forms of annuities that include some inheritance (for less monthly income), and one can also annuitize a part of the money
  • For some, annuities are just not on their radar screen and/or many advisors do not support them.
  • Annuities are viewed as too expensive by some people - this may be based on a fair evaluation of the product, or it may fail to consider the value of the guarantees and the probability of a long life.
  • "Deferred variable annuities" are a product entirely different from the payout annuities that provide monthly income, have given the word "annuity" a bad name. It is not well understood
  • As far as other investment choices go, TIPS are favored by some financial experts.
  • Q: What are the biggest challenges you've seen in seniors' perspectives about financing a life that extends to age 90, 100 or more?

    A. Failure to focus on the long term, facing the fact that they may have to work longer than the age at which many of their peers have retired at ---that can be difficult--- and not having enough money to live on.

    On top of it all, there is no agreement among experts about the best strategies for facing the financial challenges of living a long life. The reason? Making these decisions differ from person to person, all require interacting risks and often-difficult choices.

    For many living into their late 90s, 100 and beyond, it's a blissfully delightful life. For others, that's not the case. But no matter the circumstances, one thing is certain: The number of oldsters in America, and around the world, is growing.

    Consider this: Demographic studies project that by 2030, there will be more than 1 million people who have passed the "living to 100" milestone.

    Or this: "By the year 2017, the world -- for the first time -- will have more people 65 and older than children younger than 5," reports NPR's Joseph Shapiro.

    And this: In the United States, life expectancy in 1900 was about 47 years; in 1990, the number of 100-year-olds tallied about 37,000. By 2008, that number swelled to more than 84,000 and is projected to grow to 580,000 by 2040, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

    In March, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that a baby born in 2009 can expect to live an average of more than 78 years while the average life expectancy for someone currently age 65 is 83.

    So who gets to live into three digits, who doesn't and what does it take? Good genes, luck, attitude and having lived a relatively stress-free earlier life all play a part.

    The good life

    Helen Cairnes will turn 98 in May. A resident of Palm Beach for more than 50 years, in many ways she's typical of our oldest-old. But in others, she defies the stats researchers put forth.

    "I'm very, very happy and calm. I don't have to worry and just take things as they come," says this mother of six, grandmother of 14 and great-grandmother of 17.

    Cairnes, widowed when her husband Joe died in 1993, has been living at Noreen McKeen Towers in West Palm Beach for six years. Living there keeps her hands -- and mind -- busy, whether with Bingo, bridge or handwork. "I've just finished the most beautiful bedspread that had 23 different embroidery colors in it," she says.

    Add to that positive lifestyle and attitude, she doesn't suffer from many diseases often associated with the elderly.

    Research from a variety of sources shows that 90 percent of those who live into their 90s and 100s don't typically suffer from chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart problems or Alzheimer's disease, and that they continue to be physically and mentally healthy, albeit a bit slower.

    "Centenarians disprove the perception that 'the older you get, the sicker you get,'" says Thomas Perls, associate professor of geriatrics at Boston University School of Medicine and director of the New England Centenarian Study. "They teach us that the older you get, the healthier you've been."

    Let's talk aging

    Surprise. Our genes don't have much to do with aging. They are, however, a determinate in our longevity.

    Leonard Hayflick, Ph.D., from the Department of Anatomy at the University of California in San Francisco told an audience at the Society of Actuaries "Living to 100" program in January that aging "is not governed by our genes because genes are unnecessary to drive a spontaneous process."

    Aging, it turns out, happens at the molecular level as molecules lose their structural integrity over time. Longevity, on the other hand, is governed by a different process independent of aging. "Longevity determination is an anabolic process that is genome driven," Hayflick said.

    As far as slowing the aging process, Hayflick sees that probability as near zero. Then again, there's a new world of pharma and research that could change things.

    At the same program, Steven N. Austad from the University of Texas Health Science Center School in San Antonio, pointed to a "new pharmaceutical phase of aging research." Noting that drugs such as rapamycin have shown promise in delaying the early onset of some diseases, all possible side effects have not been detected. Even so, he said, "Medical intervention to slow human aging is no longer only a pipe dream."

    How old will you get?

    Studies of centenarians in Okinawa, Japan, indicate that longevity runs in the family. Based upon that research, having a sibling who lives past 90 gives you a 50-50 chance of crossing that marker too.

    The age at which your parents died isn't necessarily much of a yardstick for how long you will live either.

    Although money plays a part in the ability to pay for your life, perceptions matter more.

    It's no secret that many baby boomers are not financially prepared to live 10, 20, 30, 40 or more years in retirement -- or that those already retired have sufficient funds to live a comfortable aging life.

    In the Society of Actuaries' 2009 Risk and Process of Retirement Survey, only 3 percent of retirees and 5 percent of pre-retirees had $1 million or more in savings and investments; 6 percent in both groups had between $500,000 and $1 million; and 24 percent of retirees and 22 percent of pre-retires had less than $25,000.

    While those findings paint less than a rosy picture, other studies have found those already in their 90s with little financial means seem oblivious to their financial constraints.

    One study, published in 1996 in the Journal of Aging Studies, found that 67 percent of the 100-year-olds interviewed had income below the poverty line. Even so, 95 percent said they had enough money to meet their needs. Better yet were their perceptions: 96 percent said they were doing better than or the same as others their age.

    And there you have it. As far as medical science, technology and the world of pharmaceuticals and finances haves come, the world is filling with folks living well into their 90s and past 100. And a good number of them are wearing rose-colored glasses.

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