Gains in human life expectancy have slowed over the last decade, but the next wave of improvements is around the corner, according to a new report from Swiss Re.
Advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment are the most likely areas to improve global life expectancy, according to Swiss Re’s latest 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 health issues more common to the elderly, such as Alzheimer’s disease, along with lifestyle factors and access to healthcare, Swiss Re said.
“While people continue to dream of life expectancy surpassing 100 years, the gains of the last century are under threat,” said Paul Murray, CEO of life and health reinsurance at Swiss Re. “Clearly, medical research has the power to drive the next big wave of improvements in longevity. However, individuals need to maintain and intensify their healthy lifestyle choices to ensure they live longer and healthier lives. As a society, we need to address barriers to healthcare access.”
Improvements to life expectancy usually come in waves on the heels of major medical discoveries or large-scale social trends like smoking cessation, Swiss Re said. In the 20th century, pharmaceutical developments that lowered blood pressure and cholesterol sparked a sharp uptick in life expectancy. Global average life expectancy for a person born in 2020 is well over 70 years. At the end of the 1950s, global life expectancy was only 55 years.
Since 2010, however, factors including obesity-related diseases, the growing impact of Alzheimer’s disease, and unequal access to healthcare have chipped away at those gains in many areas of the world. As a result, life expectancy has leveled off in advanced markets, Swiss Re said.
The US is an outlier among advanced markets. As of 2019, only the top 10% of the US population by socioeconomic status have a comparable life expectancy at birth to the OECD average of about 80 years for men and 84 years for women, Swiss Re reported.
For a man born into the lowest 10% socioeconomic status in the US, life expectancy is only about 73 years. This trend is linked to unequal healthcare access as a result of widening socioeconomic inequality.
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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 impacted life expectancy.
Absence of medical breakthroughs hits UK life expectancy
Between 1968 and 2010, around 70% of longevity improvement in the UK was attributable to reductions in deaths related to circulatory diseases, Swiss Re reported. This reduction helped spur a rise in life expectancy from 71 to 80 years. Since 2010, however, life expectancy in the UK has increased by only one year, as fewer advances in cancer treatments and the increasing impact of dementia and respiratory diseases have eroded previous gains.
Japan and Switzerland have some of the highest life expectancies at birth among advanced economies, with each averaging around 84 years, Swiss Re reported. This is up from the countries’ life expectancies of around 70 years in 1960, and is primarily due to improved cardiovascular health.
Higher life expectancies in Japan and Switzerland are also supported by lifestyle factors and access to well-funded healthcare systems.
Advances in cancer treatment and diagnosis have the highest potential to spur further longevity improvements, Swiss Re said. For example, liquid biopsies can offer much earlier detection for some types of cancer, while the shift from generalized therapy to more personalized treatments is expected to improve cancer survival rates. The use of mRNA vaccines, which were successfully deployed during the COVID-19 pandemic, also has the potential to improve life expectancy, Swiss Re said.
Public policy can also aid in cancer survival rates. For instance, in the UK the high uptake for screening for some cancers has improved survivability by more than 50%.
Addressing diseases which affect people later in life, such as Alzheimer’s and other causes of dementia, will be vital to increasing longevity, Swiss Re said. Forecasts in the UK predict that the number of those affected by Alzheimer’s disease will nearly double by 2040, exceeding 1.6 million people.
Several emerging technologies may also impact life expectancy. The use of artificial intelligence in medical research and in guiding treatment decisions may spur future gains, Swiss Re said.
“Medical technology, lifestyle changes and access to healthcare will propel the next wave of longevity improvements,” said Natalie Kelly, head of global underwriting, claims and R&D at Swiss Re. “The public and private sectors both have roles to play. For the insurance industry, it is vital that we understand these complex drivers so 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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