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What The Great Thinkers About Aging Are Thinking

A report from The Economist's Business of Longevity conference


Part of the Aging and Innovation Special Report

The Economist’s jam-packed San Francisco conference Wednesday on The Business of Longevity (Next Avenue was a supporting association) had a tinge of irony. That day, the National Center for Health Statistics released a report stating that U.S. life expectancy had declined for the first time since 1993.

But the conference’s theme prevailed: The way we all think about longevity needs to broaden if businesses and consumers are to have meaningful success in the future.

The high-powered gathering featured world-renowned experts ranging from Next Avenue 2016 Influencers in Aging David Lindeman (director of the Center for Technology and Aging) and Paul Irving (chairman of the Milken Institute for the Future of Aging) to biochemist J. Craig Venter (co-founder and CEO of Human Longevity and one of the first to sequence the human genome). Panelists offered their insights and challenges to the roughly 200 attendees on key aspects of aging — from the latest disruptive technologies to how other nations are approaching the needs of their elder communities.

“We need to stay human — and in a technology society, that can be hard,” said Lindeman. Then, challenging the audience, he added: “We need the brightest minds to start tackling the biggest issues we have around policy.”

Jacquelyn James lamented survey results showing that many employers don’t have the aging workforce and its unique needs on the 'company agenda.'

Highlights from the conference:

The Need to Redefine Longevity

Thomas Goetz, co-founder and CEO of Iodine — a health technology company whose mission is to turn medical research data into tools for ordinary people to make better decisions about their health — noted that longevity and health care are typically seen as the same thing. But, Goetz, said, they’re not. “Longevity is so much more,” noted Goetz.

He urged the audience to look at the bigger picture and recognize that personal longevity is impacted by our financial situation, social environment and institutional policies.

Many panelists echoed this viewpoint. They were particularly cheered by Wednesday’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announcement that will affect the nation’s 30 million older Americans suffering from hearing loss. Effective immediately, the FDA said it no longer requires adults to receive a medical evaluation or sign a waiver before buying most hearing aids. This news may help prove Goetz’s point that aging solutions are not purely medical in nature.

The announcement was heralded among conference participants as the type of new thinking needed around the definition of “aging products,” as well as a prime example of how institutional polices need to adapt to longevity realities.

What Leads to Financial Problems of Older People

As one session’s panelists noted that wealthy Americans live longer, on average, than those who are economically strained, there was considerable discussion of the factors that can lead to financial problems for older people.

One consensus view: The traditional retirement age of 65 is a “false age” that creates financial stress. As more of us live into our 80s and 90s, the economics of a two- or three-decade retirement are simply not feasible anymore for most people.

Workers need to plan and save for retirement at earlier ages, the experts agreed. But the speakers also felt employers must play a more significant role in the new reality of aging. Flexible retirement ages, transitional work options and job creation for people over 65 were all cited as examples of what should be on the to-do list at businesses and nonprofits.

Jacquelyn James, co-director of Boston College’s Center on Aging & Work, lamented results from her center’s survey showing that many employers don’t have the aging workforce and its unique needs on the “company agenda.” She also cited workers’ conundrum of discussing retirement options with employers. Most people, James said, are afraid to signal any interest in leaving the workforce. This prevents the collaboration between employers and employees that is imperative to drive change.

Dale Hall, managing director of research at the Society of Actuaries, had a new definition for retirement’s “three-legged stool.” In the ‘80s, financial advisers used that term to mean employee pensions, personal savings and Social Security. Now, Hall said, the stool is built on financial security, health and wellness and social engagement. Hall maintained that retirement products must better recognize all three legs, not just the financial piece.

Several experts also urged individuals and financial advisers to take a more holistic approach to retirement planning. Today, they noted, most people instead conduct disparate planning —for home costs, for savings and life and health insurance.

Target: Loneliness

A few speakers mentioned the 2015 study showing that loneliness and isolation have the same negative health effects as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. The solution to the problem of loneliness among older people, they said, is two-fold: part human and part technology.

Dor Skuler, CEO and co-founder of Intuition Robotics, described his company’s “social robot” driven by Artificial Intelligence (coming out in 2017) as one that will keep people more connected, engaged and active. (For a look at robotic pets as companions to the elderly, see this recent Next Avenue article.)

The idea of a robot to combat loneliness was met with enthusiasm and skepticism in equal measure. Sonya Kim, CEO and founder of One Caring Team (which offers “trained listeners” for older adults), touted the merits of using virtual reality to keep the elderly engaged. But she was also clear that the best solution for isolation would always be live interactions with friends and family.

What Other Countries Are Doing

An international panel of experts presented a fascinating look at how their countries have approached longevity.

Japan, which has the world’s fastest-aging society, is proactively planning for the future impact to its culture and economy. Part of Japan’s strategy focuses on large investments in robotics and smart homes to counter a lack of caregivers there (a problem America is expected to increasingly face, too).

Italy has tackled its caregiver shortage differently. As the first country where people over 65 have surpassed those 20 and under, Italians have taken what Roberto Bernabei, president of Italia Longeva (a scientific network of the Ministry of Health), describes as a “DIY” approach. There, families are leveraging 1.5 million immigrant workers to work as in-home caregivers. The solution has been quiet and organic, not one driven by government or policy.

By Rosanna Fay
After more than a decade of balancing her job as COO of the mobile and entertainment marketing firm she co-founded and supporting her elderly parents,  Fay shifted gears to address aging and elder care issues. Combining her tech and business background with her Certified Aging In Place Specialist designation, Fay has published articles on aging-in-place in Forbes, The Atlantic and elsewhere.

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